- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

The government's personnel chief should have delegated the decision on closing federal offices Tuesday to someone who was in town rather than make the call from Iowa, where she was campaigning for Vice President Al Gore, a Republican congressional leader said yesterday.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who represents tens of thousands of federal workers, said Office of Personnel Management Director Janice R. Lachance should have been in Washington when a fierce snowstorm struck.

If she had been here, Mr. Davis said, Ms. Lachance might have decided to close federal offices hours before thousands of government workers braved snow- and ice-covered highways.

"There is a time to govern and a time to campaign," Mr. Davis said. "She has to make up her mind whether or not she wants to be a political operative or help and work with federal employees. It's not a great mixture. Federal workers should not be a second priority or tossed around like footballs."

White House officials defended Ms. Lachance, saying her political work on behalf of the Gore campaign was not a violation of the Hatch Act, a federal statute that prohibits government employees from participating in most political activities.

According to a White House statement, Cabinet members or presidential appointees like Ms. Lachance are allowed to engage in political activity as long as travel costs are not paid by the federal government.

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Ms. Lachance, 46, is not the only administration official campaigning for the vice president. He said Cabinet secretaries and former administration staffers are also on the campaign trail, although he said he did not know how many.

"But you can just look around and see that they're a lot of people," Mr. Lehane said last night, gesturing around the bustling press room at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., before last night's presidential debates. "You know, our people support Al Gore."

He said he assumed the officials are not on government time when they campaign for Mr. Gore.

"My assumption is I'd go ask each and every one how they're doing it but my understanding is they take vacation time," Mr. Lehane said.

Asked whether spending a weekend on the campaign trial might have distracted Ms. Lachance from her duties at the Office of Personnel Management, Mr. Lehane said, "Ask her."

Pressed on whether Ms. Lachance should have been in Washington during the snowstorm, he said, "I would refer you to her."

In response, Ms. Lachance said being in Iowa during Tuesday's snowstorm did not delay her decision to shut down the government in Washington.

"Absolutely not," she said. "It was 3 a.m. and I was on the telephone, in my hotel room, in my bed when I made the decision to declare unscheduled leave. The second conference call convinced me that the weather conditions were too dangerous to keep the government open."

Ms. Lachance was stranded early Tuesday morning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, after four days with the Gore campaign. She returned to Washington early yesterday morning.

The OPM director approved the government shutdown at 7 a.m. Tuesday, three hours after the National Weather Service warned that a severe snowstorm threatened the District and its suburbs.

The lateness of the decision angered many federal workers who already were on their way to work on slippery roads or were waiting for delayed trains at commuter rail and Metro stations.

Mr. Davis said OPM officials should admit they made a mistake in making a delayed call on the closing, instead of blaming the change in weather.

"Everyone makes mistakes, and OPM officials should admit that they made a mistake," Mr. Davis said. "There's no question that the decision to shut down was delayed because the director was not here."

Ms. Lachance, a lawyer, joined the president's transition team after working in the first Clinton-Gore campaign. She was named OPMs communications director in 1993 and rose to chief of staff by 1996. In 1997, the Senate confirmed her as deputy director, then director. She previously headed communications and political affairs at the American Federation of Government Employees, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Ms. Lachance yesterday again defended her decision on changing the operating status of the government so late Tuesday morning. She said she relied on the information she received through her 4 a.m. telephone conference call with 40 state and local officials, all of whom she says reached the same conclusion to keep the local and federal government open.

"I wasn't alone. We made that decision based on the information we got from the National Weather Service," Ms. Lachance said. "The information we got very much supported a decision to declare unscheduled leave."

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said he doesn't blame OPM officials for announcing the shutdown so late, even though many workers including his cousin's wife, Kathy Moran, who took trains into the city were left stranded until 5 p.m. when the trains returned to take them home.

"The real problem was the weather forecast," Mr. Moran said. "It's an expensive decision to give general leave. OPM was rightfully concerned about the costs."

Mr. Moran said he doesn't believe that it mattered whether Ms. Lachance was in town. "It would be a problem if she was acting unilaterally. But there was consensus among the officials who participated in the first conference call to leave the government open," he said.

Mr. Davis still disagreed with the decision-making process. "If she wants to campaign, let her campaign. But for heaven's sake, don't put the federal employees at a disadvantage."

c White House correspondent Bill Sammon contributed to this report from Manchester, N.H.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide