Published September 26, 2009
A top GOP lawmaker is seeking a full release of information related to a controversial conference call last month that some said encouraged artists to create works supporting President Obama's domestic agenda.
The controversy led to the resignation Thursday of Yosi Sergant, a senior employee at the National Endowment for the Arts who was one of several officials on the hour-long conference call Aug. 10 that was part of a nationwide initiative launched by Obama to increase volunteerism.
The official participants, including the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement and United We Serve, sought focused efforts by the approximately 75 artists on the call to produce works of art that supported the Obama administration's agenda in areas like health care, energy and environment, education and community renewal.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter this week to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett calling for the release of a complete list of all the participants on the conference call, a full explanation of how the participants were selected and a description of how the call was arranged.
"Using the largest national funder of the arts to apply pressure on its grantees to create art in support of the White House's agenda is clearly inappropriate," Issa wrote. "Furthermore, using taxpayer dollars and federal employees to create an alliance whereby the NEA becomes the de facto strategic communications firm of the White House is unlawful."
"Federal law is in place to prevent the political machinery of a campaign from carrying over to the White House after an election," he continued. "Activating artists and art groups reliant on NEA funds under the implied threat of withholding future grants is a Chicago-style tactic that should have been left on the campaign trail."
The White House did not respond immediately Saturday to a request for comment. But White House officials on Thursday released new guidelines on public outreach meetings, saying the conference call hosted in part by the NEA offered the Obama administration a "teaching moment" on separating policy and politics.
The guidelines were posted Thursday on the White House's blog.
"We should consider this call to be a reminder and a teaching moment," the memorandum reads.
"It was organized with the best of intentions to promote community service and volunteerism, something the administration does with many constituencies and something we will continue to do," the memo continued. "The misunderstandings that flowed from the call should serve as a lesson going forward of the need to take extra care in planning outreach to ensure it complies with these general principles."