A Cautionary Tale of Washington

Robert Novak

6/4/2007 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Lurita Alexis Doan, an innovative African-American entrepreneur from northern Virginia, a year ago took a big government job: chief executive of the General Services Administration (GSA). After 12 months, she is on the ropes. She is the victim of a fiercely partisan Democratic congressman, an obscure government official trying to vindicate himself, and a lame-duck Republican White House unwilling to protect her.

Doan next week again will face the intimidating Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He will grill her about allegedly "false and misleading" statements she made to U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch. A 19-page report by Bloch finds her guilty of violating the 68-year-old Hatch Act, restricting federal officials from using their jobs for political purposes, because in the presence of GSA political appointees, she asked how to "help our candidates." With President Bush's political staff busy elsewhere, Doan has had to fend for herself and personally retain law and public relations firms.

This is a cautionary tale of Washington, where well-motivated people find themselves sinking into a political cesspool -- especially at the end of an eight-year administration. With GSA's 13,000 employees and $56 billion in contracts (to construct and maintain federal buildings), Doan was naive in thinking it enough to institute businesslike procedures. "Ever since I made the decision to restore fiscal discipline to all divisions within GSA," she has said, "I have had to face a series of personal attacks and charges." Clearly difficult to work with, Doan may face a humiliating dismissal by President Bush on grounds that seem remote.

When Doan appeared before the Waxman committee March 28 on "allegations of misconduct," she was prepared to talk about her approval of a contract with Sun Microsystems that has been subject to protracted contention. Rep. Tom Davis, the committee's ranking Republican not known to overlook GOP misdeeds, found "simply no evidence" that Doan "acted improperly."

Doan was taken by surprise that day to find Waxman concentrating instead on a Jan. 26 political briefing about the 2006 elections by Scott Jennings, deputy White House political director, to 30 GSA political appointees -- including Administrator Doan. Such briefings were delivered by Jennings throughout the federal government and are not viewed by the White House as violating the 1939 Hatch Act. Waxman fixed on this question asked by Doan at the briefing: "How can we help our candidates?"

That resulted in the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC), which tracks Hatch Act violations, saying it could "imagine no greater violation of the Hatch Act than to invoke the machinery of an agency in the service of a partisan campaign to retake the Congress and the governors' mansions." But the Jan. 26 meeting targeted no political candidate for support, solicited no GSA employee for political activity and resulted in no follow-up. Doan's question actually was addressed to Jennings. "The harsh penalties under the Hatch Act for a brief slip-up are unwarranted," a congressional Republican source close to the situation told me. "Doan's resignation is a punishment that does not fit the crime."

Waxman has made no secret of intending to hound the Bush administration whenever possible, with emphasis on nailing presidential adviser Karl Rove. Special Counsel Bloch's motives are more complicated. He has survived a ferocious left-wing assault, which the White House not only failed to resist but quietly supported. It is payback time for Bloch, to burnish the OSC's reputation and maybe get even.

The White House has done no more to help Doan than it did for Bloch. One congressional Republican asked a senior White House aide why not. The response, he said, amounted to this: This is a very tough time for us when we are preoccupied trying to save Alberto Gonzales, and Mrs. Doan will just have to save herself.

When I asked Congressman Davis, he replied: "The bottom line is the administration has really not shown any willingness to stand up for her like they have for Gonzales, when what she has done is not nearly so egregious." She will at least have Davis on her side when she faces the committee Thursday. Having one friend in Washington is better than none.