WASHINGTON — White House officials told agencies across the government Tuesday they should take care to avoid even the appearance that politics played a part in the award of federal grants.
The advisory came in response to an embarrassing incident last month in which a National Endowment for the Arts official asked artists on a conference call to coordinate with the Corporation for Public Service on ways to help bolster President Barack Obama's public service agenda.
Grant decisions should be based on merit and administration aides should not suggest politics was involved, White House officials told agency representatives during a meeting Tuesday. To avoid future confusion, the White House planned to send a formal memo to administration aides and hold training sessions to reiterate that position.
The White House insisted the call did not violate laws that bar the executive branch from using taxpayer resources to explicitly support a political agenda. But administration officials said they wanted to make sure everyone understood the limits – starting with agencies' chiefs of staff – to avoid future flaps.
"The point of the call was to encourage voluntary participation in a national service initiative by the arts community," White House spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement. "To the extent there was any misunderstanding about what the NEA may do to support the national service initiative, we will correct it."
Participants on the Aug. 10 conference call included the NEA, the White House and arts organizations that had supported Obama's presidential bid. On the call, NEA official Yosi Sergant asked artists to coordinate with the Corporation for Public Service.
"I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment – you know, there's four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service," Sergant said, according to audio of the phone call posted online.
Sergant at the time was the communications director at the NEA; he was reassigned after the call became public and critics said it was an example of an Obama overreach.
The NEA funds programs that increase access to art in rural areas and leads arts education programs across the country. The independent organization offers grants to artists but historically has not dictated themes in such specific terms.