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Republicans want answers in NEA flap

Yosi Sergant, a National Endowment for the Arts official, resigns after urging support for Obama's community service efforts. Republican senators want assurances that the law wasn't broken.

September 26, 2009|Mike Boehm

Ten Republican senators have written to National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, expressing concern that the Obama administration may have violated federal law by trying to use the agency for political purposes -- something the White House and NEA have denied.

The charges stem from an Aug. 10 teleconference in which the NEA's communications director urged members of the arts community to help Obama's efforts to spur volunteer community service.

Yosi Sergant was subsequently demoted by Landesman, and he resigned Thursday because he felt he was becoming a distraction for the agency.

Sergant, a former Los Angeles publicist, had supported Obama's presidential bid and worked closely with artist Shepard Fairey on his "Obama Hope" poster campaign.

At the White House, special counsels to the president issued a memo urging all staff to avoid "even the appearance of politicization" during "public outreach efforts" such as the teleconference.

Patrick Courrielche, a former employee of Sergant's who has an L.A. marketing company, was part of the phone call. Later he posted a recording and transcript on the Big Hollywood blog at Breitbart .com, and said the teleconference was improper political organizing. He also shared his concerns, and parts of the call, on Glenn Beck's Fox News program.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) led the GOP criticism, calling for congressional hearings in an open letter to the president that questioned whether the NEA had become subject to "political manipulation by the White House."

Cornyn has now has been joined by all ten GOP members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. On Wednesday they signed the letter to Landesman, the NEA chairman, calling for a more detailed explanation of the teleconference.

They also want assurances that it did not violate laws prohibiting federal agencies from spending tax dollars for political causes, and banning employees from engaging in partisan politics while on the job.

Among the signers were Sens. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the committee's ranking GOP member; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona.

They said that although they "appreciate" the statement that the NEA head issued this week on the controversy, they want more information. They requested that Landesman respond by this Thursday.

In the House, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) called for a hearing on the matter by the Education and Labor Committee. Chairman George Miller (D-Martinez) issued a statement saying he would give it "due consideration."

Landesman said in his statement that there was no political agenda or discussion of legislation on the teleconference, but that Sergant was demoted for crossing a line by urging artists to use their talents to support the government's volunteerism efforts, rather than simply sharing information on volunteer opportunities.

The ten senators also objected to a link on the NEA's website, since removed, to the Artists Healthcare Insurance Resource Center, which is sponsoring a write-in campaign urging Congress to pass "a real healthcare reform bill."

An NEA spokeswoman, Victoria Hutter, said Thursday that the link had dated from the 1990s and was present because the NEA supported the Actors Fund charity for ill performers, an affiliate of the AHIRC. But in the wake of the current controversy, she said, the endowment has realized "the need for an immediate and regular audit of its website," and the AHIRC link was removed to avoid "the appearance that the NEA is endorsing its lobbying activities."

The NEA's main role is to promote the arts and sift through nonprofit arts organizations' applications to decide how about $133 million in annual federal grants should be disbursed.

Courrielche is taking some return fire in the blogosphere. On the Huffington Post, writer Lisa Derrick suggested that he broke laws against recording telephone conversations without the other parties' permission.

In California, it is a criminal violation, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine, to record a "confidential communication" over the telephone, "intentionally and without the consent of all parties."

However, it is not illegal to record "a public gathering or in any legislative, judicial, executive or administrative proceeding open to the public, or in any other circumstance in which the parties . . . may reasonably expect that [they] . . . may be overheard or recorded."

White House spokesman William Burton said Thursday, "This is a state law enforcement question which we will have no comment on."


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