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USDA Staffers Were Targets of '92 Clinton Fund Raising

November 19, 1994|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the frantic weeks before Bill Clinton's 1992 election as President, high-ranking career employees working on a politically sensitive program in the Agriculture Department were invited to contribute to a political action committee that was raising money for the Arkansas governor's White House bid.

Among those involved with the PAC were then-Rep. Mike Espy, who would later become agriculture secretary, and Grant B. Buntrock, a Democrat who would be Espy's and Clinton's choice to head the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, the nation's major domestic farm-aid program.

Implicit in the invitation, some of the Civil Service employees now say, was the suggestion that their careers would benefit if they helped elect a Democratic President.

Thirty-eight career employees--some of whom say they were approached at work--subsequently made the donations, most of $50 to $500. Much of the money was passed on to the Arkansas-based PAC by Buntrock. Many of the checks were delivered together on a single day in a much-criticized practice known as bundling.

After the election, Espy--a longtime Clinton ally--and, later, Buntrock got their appointments. Many upper-level management employees who contributed to the Farmers & Ranchers '92 PAC, nearly all of them Democrats, also were promoted or given better job assignments. At the same time, career colleagues identified as Republicans or GOP allies were transferred to less desirable positions, according to records and interviews.

Espy, Buntrock and other Agriculture Department officials contend that there was no connection between the contributions--or the donors' partisan allegiance--and the advancement of any employees at the ASCS, which recently became part of a new Farm Service Agency. Buntrock said all appointments adhered to the "very, very strict requirements" of the Civil Service process.

But critics--both within the department and outside it--insist that the unusual pattern of campaign contributions by career employees, combined with the post-election personnel shifts, represent an alarming case of politicization of a Civil Service system that is supposed to be based on merit, not political loyalty.

"This is an egregious example of abuse, of what money buys in politics," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks federal campaign money.

"Most government employees don't make enough to give large contributions without their eyes on some prize in return or some kind of potential enhancement of their career," Miller said.

Allegations of partisanship in government promotions are not taken lightly. It is illegal to promote or demote a federal employee for making or failing to make a political contribution.

Moreover, the nature of the fund raising itself raises legal questions. Under the Hatch Act and other statutes, federal workers may donate to campaigns. But nearly all solicitation or collection of campaign funds by civil servants is prohibited, particularly at government workplaces. Violations are punishable by suspension or dismissal of those involved with the collections.

The restrictions, a cornerstone of the federal merit system, are designed to preserve the professionalism of career employees and ensure the nonpartisan delivery of federally funded public services.

For their part, most of the employees who made donations to the pro-Clinton PAC said no one suggested that doing so would enhance their careers. And many who have since advanced said they did not believe that their contributions had any bearing.

But others see a link. Said one donor: "Being a Democrat, you might hope something might come of it."

Another career employee, who declined to contribute, said he was approached at work by a senior associate who advised him: "If you're going to send money to the Democratic Party, don't send it through regular channels. You want to make sure it gets to a location where they would be able to recognize very clearly that you were in the Agriculture Department."

The employee, who requested anonymity, said he felt the remark indicated that "if there was an opportunity for (the Democrats) to reward those who supported that particular ticket, they wanted to know who it was they should reward."

A whistle-blower complaint provided by its author to The Times on the condition of anonymity alleges that the correlation between the donations and subsequent personnel changes represents a pattern that "is clear and blatant." It was filed with the Office of the Special Counsel, which generally doesn't disclose whether it is conducting an inquiry.

Assertions that the career personnel process has been politicized are being raised as Espy is under investigation by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz concerning allegations that he improperly accepted travel and entertainment from agriculture concerns. As a result of the probe, Espy has resigned, effective Dec. 31.

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