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Issa panel draws CREW fire for White House dinners video

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News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

A citizens' watchdog group said today it will file an official complaint later this week with the House Office of Congressional Ethics concerning a video produced by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the CREW complaint will single out committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., for the "All the President's Parties" video, which criticizes White House spending on official state dinners by President Obama. (See the video in the embedded player above this story.)

Sloan claims the video is a "political attack ad" and thus violates House rules and regarding "unsolicited mass communications" by distributing it to the committee's Twitter followers.

SLOAN

"I am going to file a complaint about the improper use of resources and violating House administration rules regarding the use of websites and unsolicited mass communications," Sloan told The Examiner.

Issa "has over 60,000 followers and you're banned from using unsolicited mass communications to more than 500 people. It doesn't really contain any information. The ad is nothing more than a political attack ad," Sloan said.

The committee's majority media staff produced the video after an Oct. 25 news article in The Washington Examiner reported the Obama White House spent nearly $1 million on a 2010 state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

A dinner for the prime minister of India -- which was famously crashed by Virginia couple Michaele and Tareq Salahi -- cost nearly half a million dollars, while events for Chinese President Hu Jintao and British Prime Minister David Cameron were of the same level of extravagance.

ISSA

Issa wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Nov. 1 demanding documents and information about the White House dinners, which are overseen by the State Department's Office of Protocol. (See the letter in the embedded viewer below this story.)

Seamus Kraft, a spokesman for the Issa panel, rejected CREW's criticism, saying "when apologists for the Obama Administration don't want to discuss inconvenient facts unearthed by the Oversight Committee, they frequently turn to partisan groups like CREW to make frivolous process arguments."

Kraft said that independent observers "have time and again found them to be without merit. Even though CREW's theories lack credibility, such partisan rants can still aid them in efforts to solicit funds from big spending liberal donors."

Sloan also said the CREW complaint would cover use of social media by members of Congress.

It's not clear if committee videos would be covered by the rule against unsolicited communications, since they are produced for official public information purposes.

It's also not clear if tweets by House leaders and panels to their followers would be covered by the rule. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has 254,000 Twitter followers, while House Democrats have 35,000 followers. Both distribute clearly partisan Tweets to followers.

Gabriela Schneider, communications director of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said people who choose to be a follower are not getting an unsolicited message.

"If you're a follower, it's not unsolicited. You choose to follow those messages," she said.

Michael Franc, vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former senior congressional staff member, said the committee's video "definitely has the look and feel of a campaign ad, yet it's completely within the substantive jurisdiction of the committee."

Franc said the video points to an issue facing legislators in the digital age: "How do you adapt that edginess of social media to the legitimate dissemination of the byproduct by a committee staff?"

The video compares the federal General Services Administration's Las Vegas conference, which cost $840,000 with the $969,000 price tag for the Mexican dinner. The video also criticizes the White House for spending nearly a half million dollars for the Indian state dinner.

The House panel has produced at least 69 public information videos since May 2010, but the "All the President's Parties" is the first to draw Sloan's ire.

Her group has previously criticized Issa for mounting the committee's investigation of the "Fast and Furious" program at the Justice Department, saying it was simply a "witch hunt."

Sloan's group also derided Issa as its "Scoundrel of the Month" of October for his probe of the Sept. 11, 2012, massacre by terrorists of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. Contact him at rpollock@washingtonexaminer.com.

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