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White House says it held employee briefings on GOP races

WASHINGTON -- The White House acknowledged yesterday it has conducted about 20 briefings for federal employees on the election prospects of Republican candidates -- the sort of meetings that have led to an investigation into administration political activity.

An independent unit, the US Office of Special Counsel, began an investigation this week into a presentation by Bush aide J. Scott Jennings to political appointees at the General Services Administration. At issue is whether the January session violated the federal Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activities with government resources or on government time.

The Office of Special Counsel, led by Scott Bloch, is in charge of enforcing the Hatch Act. Bloch himself is being investigated by the Bush administration on separate matters, including his enforcement of the Hatch Act.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said briefings were also held at other federal agencies, for a total of about 20 -- most in 2006 and a couple in 2007. They were conducted by White House political director Sara Taylor or Jennings, her deputy. It had been known that other briefings were held, but not how many.

Others were held in previous years as well, but Stanzel said the White House had not kept a count.

Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said that no laws were broken and that the White House counsel's office knew of the effort.

"There is no prohibition under the Hatch Act of allowing political appointees to talk to other political appointees about the political landscape in which they are trying to advance the president's agenda," Perino said. "These briefings were not inappropriate, they were not unlawful, they were not unethical."

Some Democrats disagree.

They have alleged that at the end of the presentation at GSA, administrator Lurita Doan asked all present to consider how they could use the agency to "help our candidates" in 2008. They also question whether the PowerPoint demonstration Jennings used violated the Hatch Act.

At the same time that Bloch is investigating the White House, the Bush administration is investigating Bloch for his handling of Hatch Act cases -- as well as a complaint filed against Bloch by a group of career Office of Special Counsel employees and four public interest groups. The complaint alleges that Bloch created a hostile work environment with retaliatory acts against his employees.