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White House reinstituting shuttered, internal political office raises concerns

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FILE: Jan. 17, 2014: President Barack Obama speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. (AP)

The White House is reinstating a political office to help congressional Democrats in the 2014 elections -- raising concerns, considering President Obama shuttered a similar operation after a federal investigation found it had used taxpayer money to help Republican candidates.

Obama on Friday announced the opening of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, three years after the investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.

“The White House’s announcement … again raises troubling concerns about the illegal use of taxpayer funds to support campaign-related initiatives,” said California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In a January 2011 report, the watchdog office found that staff in George W. Bush’s Office of Political Affairs violated federal statutes that prohibit the use of Treasury Department money for some political activity while working with groups to get Republican candidates elected.  

“That appears to be precisely what the re-branded Office of Political Strategy and Outreach will do,” Issa said Friday.

Obama said David Simas, a top adviser grappling with problems with his health care rollout, will lead the new effort. Simas also will try to help Democrats retain control of the Senate and evaluate political support for the president’s agenda.

Helping Democrats maintain control of the Senate is crucial to Obama’s hopes of getting his priorities through Congress in the last two years of his presidency.

Obama when closing the office in 2011 shifted its director, Patrick Gaspard, to run the national party headquarters before choosing him last year as ambassador to South Africa.

Congressional Democrats have since been grumbling that no one inside the White House is focused on the political environment, with their jobs on the line and tied to Obama’s performance.

Issa said he has yet to hear from either the White House or the Office of Special Counsel.

He also said his House committee has jurisdiction over the Office of Special Counsel and it will subject the White House decision and the ongoing work of the reconstituted office to “appropriate scrutiny and oversight.”

The new office will be slimmed down from the 15-member operation that existed before 2011, with about a third of the staff. Its creation comes after Obama overhauled his legislative affairs office in recent weeks to improve relations with lawmakers. Democrats were concerned that last year’s bruising partisan battles over health care and the budget could hurt their chances in the midterm elections.

Simas will advise the president on the political climate, handle requests for campaign appearances and coordinate strategy with the Democratic National Committee and other national and local party operations. The White House said he’ll also tell administration officials what they can do legally when they get involved in political activity.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



 

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