The story arose from an August 10 teleconference that Yosi Sergant, then Communications Director of the NEA, arranged, and Michael Skolnick, political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (an aside- do most hip-hop moguls have political directors?), chaired. Participants in the teleconference also included 21 artists and arts-related non-profit groups, including Patrick Courrielche, who recently received grants from the NEA, Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Nell Abernathy, Director of Outreach for Serve.Gov, which is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency.
To his great credit, the call deeply offended Patrick Courrielche, and he details what happened in the call and how Sergent and the White House subsequently lied about the Administration's role in the call here. Courrielche also includes a full transcript and audio of the call. Here are some of the highlights from the major players named above.
- “I’ve been asked by folks in the White House and folks in the NEA … we had the idea that I would help bring together the artist community…”
- “…the Hope poster obviously is a great example, but it’s clear as an independent art community as artists and thinkers and tastemakers and marketers and visionaries that are on this call, the role that we played during the campaign for the president…”
- “…the President has a clear arts agenda and has been very supportive of using art and supporting art in creative ways to talk about some issues that we face here in our country, but also to engage people. And I think all of us who are on this phone call, you know, were selected for a reason.”
- “And so I’m hoping that through this group, and the goal of all this, and the goal of this phone call, is through this group we can create a stronger community amongst ourselves to get involved in things we’re passionate about as we did during the campaign. But to continue to get involved in those things, to support some of the President’s initiatives, but also to do things that we are passionate about and to push the President and push his administration…"
Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement:
- “I just first of all want to thank everyone for being on the call and just a deep deep appreciation for all the work you all put into the campaign for the 2+ years we all worked together.”
- “We won.”
- “I’m actually in the White House and working towards furthering this agenda, this very aggressive agenda.”
- “We’re going to come at you with some specific asks here.”
- “I hope you guys are ready.”
- “I would encourage you to pick something, whether it’s health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service.”
- “And then my ask would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative communities utilities and bring them to the table.”
- “Again, I’m really, really honored to be working with you; the National Endowment for the Arts is really honored.”
- “You’re going to see a lot more of us in the next four and hopefully eight years.”
- “This is a community that knows how to make a stink.”
- “…this is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation.”
- “We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally?”
- “So bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely…”
- “I would encourage you to pick something whether it’s health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service.”
- “My ask would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative community’s utilities and bring them to the table.”
Ben Shapiro, a recent Harvard Law grad, sets out what happened after the call and legal issues arising from the call:
So you would think that the national news media would be concerned about a White House is potentially using the NEA's grant system for propaganda purposes. But no, not really.
On August 25, artist Patrick Courrielche told the story of a conference call he attended on August 10. That conference call was hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The goal of the conference call: “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda – health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.” The call would push “a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, taste-makers, leaders or just plain cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change!”
If this sounds suspicious to you, that’s because it is. Never before has the NEA explicitly urged artists to tackle particular social issues like health care. But that is how this Administration works.
The people behind the conference call, Courrielche reported, were Yosi Sargent, Director of Communications for the National Endowment for the Arts; Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; Nell Abernathy, Director of Outreach for United We Serve; Thomas Bates, Vice President of Civic
Engagement for Rock the Vote; and Michael Skolnik, Political Director for Russell Simmons. Sargent sent the actual email invitation. When The Washington Times called Sargent for confirmation, Sargent denied involvement with the email. He claimed that Skolnik had sent the invitation.
The email came directly from Sargent – which is to say, from the NEA itself. Most astonishingly, the email contained a copy of a notice from United We Serve. That notice read: “A call has come in to our generation. A call from the top. A call from a house that is White. … President Obama is asking us to come together … Now is the time for us to answer this call.” Sargent has since been “reassigned” at the NEA.
Two days after the conference call, on August 12, 21 separate arts organizations came out and endorsed Obama’s health care plan.
All of this – particularly the government-sponsored conference call itself – is in blatant violation of the Anti-Lobbying Act (19 U.S. Code §1913), which explicitly provides: “No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly 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, whether before or after the introduction of any bill, measure or resolution proposing such legislation, law, ratification, policy or appropriation …”
Violation of this law, in turn, violates 31 U.S. Code §1352, which bans use of “funds appropriated by any Act [from being] expended by the recipient of a Federal contract, grant, loan, or cooperative agreement to pay any person for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of any agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with any Federal action …”
According to a government guide put out by the National Institutes of Health Ethics Program (which is a governmental agency: ethics.od.nih.gov), the Anti-Lobbying Act prevents government employees from engaging in “substantial ‘grass roots’ lobbying campaigns … expressly urging individuals to contact government officials in support of or opposition to legislation …. Provid[ing] administrative support for lobbing activities of private organizations …” Every provision was violated by this conference call, which urged artists to support the president’s agenda – and which connected potential voters to private lobbying organizations indirectly, as banned by the Act itself.
Violation of the Anti-Lobbying Act carries punishment: “Any person who makes an expenditure … shall be subject to a civil penalty of not less than $10,000 and not more than $100,000 for each such expenditure.” And that’s not all: “An imposition of a civil penalty under this subsection does not prevent the United States from seeking any other remedy that the United States may have for the same conduct that is the basis for the imposition of such civil penalty.” In other words, criminal prosecution is available here.
I just ran searches for "Yosi Sergent" on the websites for CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, and CBS News and came up with a September 10 blog entry from Jack Tapper of ABC about this story. Tapper's entry ends with the following:
White House spokesman Shinn Inouye said the White House does not believe the incident reflects a politicization of NEA funding. “The United We Serve effort is an attempt to get Americans from all walks of life to answer the President’s call for people to get involved with their communities,” he said.Serving their communities by advancing the President's legislative agenda??