- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A former top Department of Housing and Urban Development official now serving in Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration violated federal anti-lobbying rules, a congressional watchdog confirmed Tuesday.

Maurice Jones, who is now Virginia’s secretary of commerce, sent an email last year asking more than 1,000 recipients to support a spending bill in Congress and to oppose several GOP-authored amendments, in violation of the law, the Government Accountability Office said in a legal opinion.

HUD’s July 2013 email constitutes improper grass-roots lobbying,” Susan Poling, general counsel for the GAO, wrote in a letter to Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services oversight and investigations subcommittee, who requested the investigation.

Ms. Poling said the GAO had concluded that the email crossed the “bright line” that bars agencies from telling the public to contact Congress to support or oppose pending legislation.

The GAO did not mention Mr. Jones by name, but clearly referred to him by his previous title as deputy HUD secretary.

While Mr. Jones sent the email, an investigation earlier this year by HUD’s inspector general found he broke the rules “inadvertently” and was “embarrassed and ill-served” by his own aides.

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The HUD watchdog’s focused its harshest criticism on Elliot Mincberg, a former HUD deputy who is now working at the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The inspector general’s office said Mr. Mincberg had tried to thwart its probe and withheld information about the identities of the recipients of the email.

HUD Inspector General David Montoya told a congressional panel earlier this year that Mr. Mincberg also claimed not to know anything about lobbying rules that he helped implement at HUD.

The Justice Department declined to open up an investigation, but both the GAO and the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces rules barring political activity in the federal workplace, opened separate investigations.

Mr. Mincberg eventually resigned. Reached by phone Tuesday, he said he left HUD voluntarily and referred additional questions to HUD.

Jerry Brown, a HUD spokesman, said in an email late Tuesday that the agency recognized the importance of complying with anti-lobbying restrictions and has “worked hard to ensure full compliance” with the rules.

“The wrongdoing described by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and earlier by the Office of the Inspector General, occurred more than a year ago. Since then, we have carefully reviewed our guidance and ethics training materials for employees and further emphasized the potential issues raised by communications with the public on pending legislation, including by politically appointed employees,” Mr. Brown wrote in an email.

“The Office of General Counsel has provided training sessions on these issues for relevant offices, and also continues to reiterate the importance of full compliance with anti-lobbying restrictions in the context of its ongoing ethics training for all HUD employees. The Department is committed to ensuring that its workforce adheres to the highest ethical standards.”

The GAO ruling quoted extensively from the email from Mr. Jones, which asked recipients to contact senators to ask them to support legislation.

The emails also instructed recipients to tell senators to “defend against efforts by some Republicans to enact harmful amendments” to the HUD appropriations bill. One specific amendment Mr. Jones lobbied against was one from Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, that would have tightened the regulations on the use of federal matching funds in homeless-aid grants.

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