On August 12, a group of 21 arts organizations endorsed President Barack Obama’s health reform plan only 48 hours after a conference call in which a top National Endowment for the Arts official asked arts groups for help in advancing the administration’s policy agenda, including health care.
One reason the arts organizations may have been so swift to follow the administration’s suggestion is that 16 of the groups and affiliated organizations received nearly $2 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in the 150 days before the conference call. According to a Washington Times analysis of NEA records, more than $1 million of that total came from the stimulus package. (see timeline)
The explosive questions are obvious and so far the administration is not talking:
Is it ethical, or even legal, for a federal official from a grant-making agency to ask grant recipients to endorse the administration’s political agenda? Is the White House crossing a line when a West Wing political appointee is on the call? Did political considerations infect the grant-making process at NEA?
Digging deeper into the grants only reveals more disturbing questions. Among the recipients of the grants, in this case, $50,000 from the stimulus package, is a group named Americans for the Arts. According to federal records published at OpenSecrets.org, Americans for the Arts has already dedicated $250,000 to lobbying expenses this year alone. The president of Americans for the Arts is an Obama donor and the affiliated political action committee gave $48,000 to congressional Democrats in the last election cycle. According to NEA records analyzed by The Washington Times, donors to the PAC received more than an additional $500,000 in stimulus funds.
Did Congress intend for stimulus money to land in the coffers of politically connected lobbyists? What protections did the administration put in place to assure that stimulus money was not steered to its political allies? Have other lobbyists been funded through stimulus programs administered by different federal agencies?
Since The Washington Times began writing about the NEA’s shady conference call, NEA Director of Communications Yosi Sergant has been removed from his position and reassigned according to an agency spokeswoman. Kalpen Modi, an official with the White House Office of Public Engagement, remains in his position.
It is far from clear, that Mr. Sergant and Mr. Modi were acting alone in arranging what appears to be a back door effort to transform art promotion into political capital. Indeed, The Washington Times has uncovered an example of how the NEA’s newly confirmed chairman may be involved.
In the weeks after the Sergant-Modi conference call, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman had a conversation with Bob Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. The Washington Times learned of the conversation because Mr. Lynch posted a podcast about it on ArtsUSA.org, the Americans for the Arts web site. According to Mr. Lynch, the conversation included a discussion of health care reform.
The roots of the effort to turn the National Endowment for the Arts into a political tool of the White House go back to just days after Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Here’s how events unfolded: