The federal agency being asked to investigate whether the Obama administration used improper federal job offers to avert Democratic primary fights has no permanent leader and faces a mounting backlog of cases, according to a recent report to Congress.
Though the Office of Special Counsel is specifically charged with investigating instances of illegal political activity by federal employees under the 1939 Hatch Act, the Obama administration has yet to appoint somebody to run the independent agency, which in its 2008 report to Congress acknowledged struggling with the volume and "seriousness" of the cases referred to it.
On Wednesday, Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, formally asked the office to investigate whether White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's involvement in the Democratic Senate primary race in Pennsylvania violated the Hatch Act. Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat who defeated White House-backed Sen. Arlen Specter in the primary last month, said he had been offered a federal post by the administration if he abandoned his challenge.
Mr. Issa, ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a four-page letter to the agency's acting special counsel, William Reukauf, that Mr. Emanuel was "leveraging the power and access of his official position to advance the political interests of the Democratic Party."
The White House has denied any impropriety in the maneuvering around the primary.
The Office of Special Counsel report, its most recent to Congress, stated that the agency's Hatch Act Unit received a record 445 complaints in 2008 and "recent surges in both complaints and advisory opinion activities, coupled with task force responsibilities, have made the HAU's workload nearly overwhelming."
Mr. Issa previously asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint a Justice Department special prosecutor to investigate the matter. Mr. Holder declined.
The White House has acknowledged that Mr. Emanuel enlisted former President Bill Clinton to discuss with Mr. Sestak whether he would consider dropping out of the primary while letting it be known that the congressman would be in line for a nonpaying post on an executive branch advisory board. Mr. Sestak said he immediately declined the offer.
According to the Office of Special Counsel's 2008 report, the Hatch unit addressed more than 2,000 cases, sent 70 warning letters and took further corrective action in 32 other cases - including 17 cases that resulted in federal employees resigning from their posts.
A review of reports dating to 1998 found most cases involved state or local employees receiving such letters or getting suspended for performing such political work as sending fundraising e-mails or stuffing campaign envelopes during work hours. Though few cases involved high-ranking federal officials, the review showed a senior Defense Department official resigned in 2004 after the agency concluded that he used his office to assist his run in Virginia for a congressional seat.
The Office of Special Counsel cooperated with requests for information but did not respond to a call about whether the workload has improved since 2008.
While the White House's top attorneys said no laws were broken in the Sestak matter, they found themselves on the defensive as questions emerged about a similar case in the Colorado Democratic Senate primary. In that case, the White House was eager to head off a primary challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democratic freshman, from Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the Colorado House.
The questions focus on contacts between White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and Mr. Romanoff about whether Mr. Romanoff was still interested in a series of administration jobs, an interest he had expressed before the possibility of a primary challenge surfaced.
Legal analysts say the Hatch Act is a critical safeguard in American politics, but the legal questions on politicking by federal employees are less clear when applied to high-ranking officials such as Mr. Emanuel.
"The Hatch Act is a very important law because people should not be doing politics on government time," said Scott Coffina, associate counsel for the Bush administration from 2007 to 2009 who is now in private practice. "It protects the work environment down to somebody sending a colleague and fundraising e-mail."
But, he added, "If you enforce that, then how is it OK for the White House's office of political affairs to offer somebody a position to clean out the race for the candidate they want?"
Boston College law professor George Brown called the law "a good-government statute, aimed primarily at rank-and-file employees."
The issue also has renewed the debate on whether to shutter the White House political affairs office, though such a change appears unlikely.
"Presidents should have the ability to draw the line between when they're the leader of the party and their people," Mr. Brown said. "They are entitled to have a relatively small operation like that."
Melanie Sloane, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the larger issue is the political appointee process.
"Maybe we wish Washington was a meritocracy, but it's not," she said. "Ambassadors don't get their jobs because of their foreign policy skills. ... And the president is the de facto leader of his party. So I cannot see how getting rid of the office is practical. And no president would be the one to do it."
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