Special counsel says White House political office acted within law

WASHINGTON Fri Jul 25, 2014 1:53pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House's political office did not engage in illegal partisan activity, a federal oversight agency said following a congressional hearing to probe whether taxpayer money has been used by the Obama administration for political purposes.

The Office of Political Strategy and Outreach (OPSO) "appears to be operating in a manner that is consistent with Hatch Act restrictions," the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel said in a letter dated July 24 and released on Friday.

It also said it has received no allegations about wrongdoing about any staffers in the White House's political unit, including by director David Simas.

The House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by Republican Darrell Issa, held a hearing last week on how the political office has complied with the Hatch Act, which forbids most federal government employees from engaging in partisan political activity.

Issa has queried other administration activities, including the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and circumstances surrounding the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed.

At the hearing, U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner testified that the administration's political office appeared to be following restrictions under the law.

In the letter released Friday, Lerner also said her agency will investigate the issue if it is given "credible evidence that indicates a violation." The special counsel's office is charged with enforcing the Hatch Act.

The letter was released by Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House committee, who had sought more details following the hearing.

Chairman Issa had subpoenaed Simas to testify at the hearing, but the White House contested the summons and said he would not appear.

At the hearing, Issa accused Obama's former labor secretary, Hilda Solis, of breaking the law by seeking political donations for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said the letter was based on a cursory review and not a full investigation and that "there continue to be concerns" about the administration's political office.

The committee will also consider a resolution Friday about whether the White House's claim that Simas is immune from being compelled to appear before Congress is valid and, if not, what other steps the committee can take to compel his testimony, Hill added.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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