Rove Aide Details Broad Political Abuses
In January 2002, at a retreat in West Virginia, Karl Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation to at least 50 managers at the Department of the Interior to discuss polling data, and emphasized the importance of getting Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican, reelected that year. The way to get Smith reelected to another term, Rove reportedly told the Interior Department officials, would come via the agency's support of a highly controversial measure: diverting water from the Klamath River Basin to farms in the area that were experiencing unusually dry conditions, thereby supporting the GOP's agricultural base.
In January 2002, at a retreat in West Virginia, Karl Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation to at least 50 managers at the Department of the Interior to discuss polling data, and emphasized the importance of getting Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican, reelected that year.
The way to get Smith reelected to another term, Rove reportedly told the Interior Department officials, would come via the agency's support of a highly controversial measure: diverting water from the Klamath River Basin to farms in the area that were experiencing unusually dry conditions, thereby supporting the GOP's agricultural base.
Details of Rove's involvement in influencing the Interior Department to reverse its policies with regard to the Klamath River basin have been previously reported. But questions about why a political operative like Rove was influencing agricultural and environmental policy decisions, possibly in violation of the law, and whether he pressured cabinet officials to reverse policy to get Republicans reelected were raised again last month during a sworn deposition Rove's former executive assistant, Susan Ralston, gave to Congressional investigators probing Rove's role in the US attorney scandal and his and other White House officials connections with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
A transcript of Ralston's deposition was released on Monday by Congressman Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
According to Congressional investigators Rove used the PowerPoint presentation at the West Virginia retreat to solicit Republican donors. But Rove's priority was to ensure that farmers in Oregon got the additional water they wanted from the Klamath River, so Senator Smith would be reelected. President Bush lost Oregon by less than one percent in the 2000 presidential election to Al Gore, according to polling results from the Associated Press.
Laying the groundwork to get Smith reelected, Rove set up a cabinet-level task force on Klamath River issues to specifically study whether diverting water from Klamath River to farmers would hurt the endangered Coho salmon population. The task force Rove set up gave the impression that the administration was going to take an unbiased look at the situation.
According to Michael Kelly, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, that wasn't the case. Kelly spoke out publicly in 2003 alleging that he was subjected to political pressure and ordered to ignore scientific evidence that said the plan would likely kill off tens of thousands of Coho salmon, and to support the Klamath River low-water plan Rove wanted enacted to help farmers, who Rove saw as a crucial part of the Republican constituency in the state.
In March 2002, in a sudden reversal of a long standing policy, then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Senator Smith held a joint press conference in Klamath Falls and opened up the irrigation system releasing thousands of gallons of water to 220,000 acres of farmland. The policy shift left the Klamath River basin with unusually low river flows that summer and ended up killing more than 30,000 endangered Coho salmon - the largest fish kill in the history of the West. But the move, as orchestrated by Rove, ended up getting Smith reelected that November.
A year later, a federal judge issued a ruling saying the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing water to be diverted to farmers from Klamath River.
Rove's meeting with Interior Department officials where he discussed campaign strategy underscores the level of influence Rove has successfully exerted upon every federal government office. From the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Transportation, and going as far back as the beginning of President Bush's first term, Rove appears to view federal agencies as a division of the Republican National Committee where he can call on officials for political favors. Now, Congressional investigators appear interested in determining exactly how much influence Rove wielded over federal agencies and whether anything improper occurred during the routine political briefings Rove gave to the various agency officials.
With regard to Rove's role in the Klamath River basin matter, Ralston said she recalled that Rove and his aides discussed, as a "policy matter," the issue on "multiple occasions" during closed-door meetings in Rove's office at the White House.
"This subject did come up frequently in our directors' meeting," Ralston said, adding that she could not specifically recall the number of times the matter was discussed but "it was definitely mentioned on multiple occasions."
Senator John Kerry called for an investigation in the summer of 2002 to determine whether Rove shaped the Interior Department's decision to divert water from Klamath River to farmers. The Interior Department's inspector general concluded that department officials based their decision on science; a conclusion biologists vehemently disagreed with at the time based on their own scientific evidence. However, the inspector general's findings did not address whether Rove influenced the department's decision to divert water from Klamath River to farmers following his presentation to department officials about Oregon's Senatorial campaign.
Still, political briefings such as the one Rove held for Interior Department officials in 2002 have become routine and an important part of the Bush administration's political strategy. The White House has sought to downplay the number of political briefings held for agency officials during the past four years. But according to Ralston's deposition, she said the briefings were far more extensive than the White House has claimed.
Ralston said that officials in Rove's shop, the Office of Political Affairs, would regularly brief political appointees at federal agencies about "target states" Republicans needed to focus heavily on to win an election, and efforts cabinet officials needed to take with regard to policy to ensure Republicans were reelected.
Ralston told Congressional attorneys that Mehlman and Barry Jackson, Rove's deputy on policy, were largely responsible for briefing various federal agencies about upcoming elections. However, Rove personally visited each of the major cabinet agencies to provide officials with "target states" on which Republicans needed to focus. The briefings, Ralston said, became more frequent during campaign season.
"Some agencies had more than one political briefing during an election cycle," Ralston said in her deposition. "For example, at Commerce, reportedly, political appointees attended an Office of Political Affairs presentation at the agency and then the [Commerce] secretary with senior Commerce political staff, attended a second private briefing at the White House ... the Office of Political Affairs would draft [the presentations]. They would get [polling] information from somebody on staff who ... had experience in polling information and sometimes they did get it from the RNC."
If Rove and other White House officials discussed campaign strategy at federal office buildings, that would appear to be a violation of the Hatch Act. Recently, Congress launched an investigation into a briefing that J. Scott Jennings, the deputy director of political affairs, held at the General Services Administration. In the presentation, Jennings outlined polling data from the 2006 national elections and issued a list of the Republican Party's electoral targets for 2008. Jennings's presentation may violate a law known as the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of government resources for political purposes.
Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.