A recent article by Richard Grenell on the CBS News website, written before last Sunday’s House of Representatives vote on Obamacare, reports that “White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle has been feverishly sending out unsolicited email messages to federal employees in an effort to build support for President Barack Obama’s health reform package over the last several weeks.” The report states that DeParle’s actions are “not only unethical but possibly illegal.”
A source of mine very knowledgeable in this area of the law sees the legal question as quite straightforward: “If the e-mails were sent from a government system, or on government time, and if they did urge anyone [other than someone in Congress] to act to get the bill passed, it unquestionably would be a violation of 18 U.S.C. 1913.” (Section 1913 provides that it is a federal crime illegal to use appropriated funds, “in the absence of express authorization by Congress,…to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation.”)
According to an update to Grenell’s article, Linda Douglass, the communications director for the White House Office of Health Reform, responded to his article by contending that the federal employees had signed up to receive e-mail messages about Obamacare. But that issue, my source emphasizes, is utterly irrelevant to the legal question whether DeParle violated federal criminal law: Under section 1913, DeParle couldn’t use a government system or government time to send e-mails to anyone (other than someone in Congress) urging action to help get Obamacare passed. That’s true whether or not the recipient was a government employee and whether or not the recipient signed up to receive the e-mails.