EDITORIAL: Unanswered questions from the NEA

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman and the White House finally responded to a controversial effort by political appointees of both the White House and the NEA to “leverage” government funding of the arts into cultural support for the administration’s legislative agenda.

This is the short version of the Obama administration’s position: Nothing bad happened. The rogue employee who didn’t do anything bad has been relieved of his duties (and has now resigned). In an effort to make sure that the same “nothing bad” never happens again, the administration has distributed a memo and provided some new training on how not to do “nothing bad.”

The facts are simple and public. During the transition, President Obama’s top arts adviser made it clear that his ambition was for the arts to become an integral part of the West Wing. After the inauguration, meetings of artists and political activists at the White House explicitly discussed how to keep the arts community in campaign mode to back Mr. Obama’s legislative agenda. An NEA grants official, Mario Garcia Durham, was at one such meeting for which the attendee list is public.

As those meetings occurred, Yosi Sergant, a key cog in the Obama campaign’s outreach to artists, was transferred from a position at the White House to a position as the communications director of the NEA. When the grant spigots opened at the NEA, more than $2 million went directly into the coffers of arts organizations (and their members) attending these meetings and publicly backing elements of the administration agenda.

Does that prove laws have been broken? Of course not. The worst appearances can be completely innocent. However, the administration’s assertions that Mr. Sergant acted alone (“unilaterally and without … approval or authorization” in Mr. Landesman’s words) and that the administration’s efforts were “completely unrelated” to grant-making are at odds with the facts. The public deserves more than bland reassurances.

A full investigation by both Congress and the NEA inspector general is the only way to bring this story to a close. Answers to these questions would be only a start:

c What was an NEA grants official doing at a White House political meeting? What other grants officials have been meeting with White House political officials?

c So far we know about a handful of conference calls last month and White House meetings last spring. Is this the full extent of the coordination between the White House political staff and the NEA?

c Has the grant-making process been compromised by politics? How were the brand-new stimulus grants insulated from politics? Were any of the safeguards circumvented?

c On the same day that Americans for the Arts, a lobbying organization that also runs a partisan Democratic political action committee, endorsed the key elements of the Obama health care plan, the president of the group met with Mr. Landesman, the new NEA chief. What happened at that meeting?

c Why was activist Yosi Sergant transferred from the White House to the NEA? Who made the decision?

From Day One of this story, Mr. Sergant’s statements, the NEA’s official statements and Mr. Landesman’s statements have been riddled with falsehoods and bluster. There’s no reason to take anything the NEA has said so far at face value.

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