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Arne Duncan 'speaker series' appearance raises funds for Obama reelection

October 31, 2011|By Peter Nicholas | Washington Bureau
(Ricardo Arduengo / Associated…)

The invitation under the Obama campaign logo is simple enough: "Obama Speaker Series Inaugural Event, Featuring The Honorable Arne Duncan."

Duncan is the Obama administration’s secretary of Education. Earlier this month, he spoke in front of several dozen people at a private home in Brentwood, Calif., as part of a new fundraising venture launched by the Obama reelection campaign.

Donors pay for membership in the "speaker series" and in turn get to hear speeches from administration officials, senior campaign aides and White House alumni. The invitation for the Duncan event gives people the option of contributing or raising up to $10,000.

Innocuous as the invitation may sound, there's nothing casual in the way it was worded.  When certain federal employees speak at campaign fundraising events, strict ground rules apply.  Their participation is governed by the Hatch Act, the law regulating political activity by public employees.

In the case of Duncan, he is free to attend fundraising events in his "personal capacity," said an official with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that helps enforce the Hatch Act.

But Duncan cannot be identified by his title. Had the invitation described him as "Education Secretary Arne Duncan," for example, instead of "The Honorable Arne Duncan," that would have run afoul of the Hatch Act, the official said.

Nor can anyone introducing Duncan at a fundraiser make reference to his title. So, something like: "Now let's give a big hand for Education Secretary Arne Duncan" would be verboten. Strike the words "Education Secretary," though, and you're fine.

Then there's the matter of biographical material. Let's say the organizers want to pass out a written bio on Duncan, so that guests know something about his background. (Duncan's resume is pretty interesting. He played basketball at Harvard and later played on a pro team in Australia.  But back to our story.) The bio can make reference to his title. But the fact that he's Obama's education secretary can't be given "any more prominence" than other parts of his biography, the official said.

Got that?

Despite the complicated rules, the president's campaign supporters said the event was worth it.

One person who attended said Duncan spoke in part about "Race to the Top," an Obama administration program that gives competitive grant money to school districts as an incentive for them to innovate.

"Duncan is terrific," said this person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't do nearly as much as I'd like him to do on the campaign."

A spokesman for the Honorable Arne Duncan said he attended the event on his own time.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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