As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s new policies restricting protest in the Wisconsin capitol take effect in advance of the anniversary of 2011's historic labor uprisings, the controversial governor has enlisted a new spokesperson to sell the rules, a 28-year old protégé of Karl Rove and new political appointee of the governor.
Madison blogger Joe Vittie broke the story on WisconsinReporters.com about Jocelyn Webster, the person Walker hired as the public face defending the rules. Webster cut her teeth with Rove’s notorious Office of Political Affairs in the George W. Bush Administration. A congressional investigation of the activities of that office yielded allegations -- including specific allegations against Webster -- that Rove’s team was involved in partisan campaigning on the public dime, a claim also leveled at aides of her newest boss during his tenure as Milwaukee County Executive.
Webster’s Eye-Rolling Lead Some to Discover Her Karl Rove Roots
On December 1, Walker's Department of Administration (DOA) released a twenty-three page policy announcing new limits on demonstrations in and around the state capitol, the site of massive protests earlier this year. The policy was clearly drafted with an eye towards landmark federal First Amendment cases, but legal observers have criticized the new rules, and the ACLU of Wisconsin is considering legal action. Walker opponents view the new rules as an effort to suppress dissent. For example, the definition of a "rally" as four people appears aimed at the Solidarity Singers, a group who gather every day at noon to sing popular songs altered with political lyrics criticizing the Walker administration.
DOA unveiled the policy December 1, but announced a two-week "educational period" (which some perceived as a public relations blitz) to help the public understand the new restrictions. The rules take effect December 16.
Just before the policy was announced, the Walker administration selected a new political appointee to serve as DOA Communications Director. The name of the appointee, Jocelyn Webster, was at the top of the December 1 press release announcing the new restrictions on capitol protests. Webster was also quoted in the press claiming that the “updated policy is meant to remove confusion and create consistency” for law enforcement officers and the public.
Webster caught the eye of citizens attending a recent public "information session" about the new restrictions on rallies in the capitol. Based on what some described as her petulant eye-rolling in response to citizens expressing concerns about restrictions on their freedom of speech, Vittie took a closer look at her experience and background.
From Washington to Wisconsin
Webster is no local. She was most recently in Dallas, Texas, working government relations for the global convenience store chain 7-Eleven. Previously, she worked four months for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s PR shop. For nine months before that she pushed press inside the beltway on education policy in the 2008 election year. She also worked PR for New Yorker Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign.
But before those experiences, Webster worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C., and was cited in a major congressional investigation.
After graduating from college in California, Webster got a gig at the new Department of Homeland Security as a liaison to the George W. Bush White House. After six months, she moved to the White House and became a staffer in the Office of Political Affairs (OPA) in February, 2006.
OPA was overseen by Karl Rove and was reportedly tasked with tracking the political environment. A three-year investigation into Rove's OPA concluded in January of this year with a report showing the office routinely violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars on partisan political activities.
The report by the Office of Special Counsel found that the taxpayer-funded activities of OPA employees "were directed at the electoral success of Republican candidates and the Republican Party as a whole," and that "U.S. Treasury funds were unlawfully used to finance efforts to pursue Republican victories at the polls.”
"OPA was essentially an extension of the RNC in the White House,” the report stated.
Rove's OPA violated the Hatch Act throughout the Bush presidency, said the report, but particularly in the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections, when Webster joined the OPA.
Webster's Ties to Bush White House Email Controversy
The controversial role of the office in which Webster worked did not end after the 2006 mid-term elections.
In 2007, it was revealed that OPA staffers had been using partisan Republican National Committee (RNC) email accounts for official business, such as the controversial firings of federal prosecutors. This practice circumvented the requirements of federal sunshine and ethics laws, such as the Presidential Records Act, which required that employees preserve a record of all communications taking place at work. The National Journal wrote that Karl Rove sent ninety-five percent of his emails on his RNC account.
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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman requesting an investigation. As a result of that congressional investigation, the Bush Administration claimed that 5 million emails had been lost or deleted. After a lawsuit, computer technicians were able to reconstruct some of the deleted messages and found that up to 22 million emails had been deleted.
Chairman Waxman rejected demands by the RNC that the searches of the emails be limited. In an April 2007 letter (pdf), Waxman notes that accepting the RNC's request to limit the email search terms "would not have located a January 19, 2007, e-mail from an official in Karl Rove's office to an official at the General Services Administration transmitting a copy of Powerpoint slides prepared by the White House that list the top 20 Democratic targets in 2008. That e-mail read: 'Please do not email this out or let people see it. It is a close hold and we're not supposed to be emailing it around.'"
"E-mail from Jocelyn Webster (pdf), Staff Assistant, Office of Political Affairs, White House,
to Tessa Truesdell, Confidential Assistant to the Administrator, General Services Administration (Jan. 19,2007)." Webster was not charged with any crime for her activities in Rove’s operations during her work for him from early 2006 until early 2007.
Webster Role in "Pentagon Pundits" Operation, which CMD Helped Expose
In early 2007, with public support for the Iraq war declining, Webster moved to the Pentagon's public affairs division.
In 2008, David Barstow broke a story in the New York Times about the depth and breadth of the Defense Department’s public affairs operation using "surrogates" to promote Bush administration policies in the press, without disclosing the Pentagon's hidden hand. The Center for Media and Democracy’s founder John Stauber called the scandal “the Pentagon Papers of this war” in Iraq. CMD, which publishes PRWatch, made the documents Barstow obtained available to the public through its SourceWatch electronic library. Barstow and the Times won a Pulitzer for its investigation.
One part of that program was described in an earlier Harpers Magazine article by Ken Silverstein, who specifically identified Webster as working on the project. The so-called "Surrogates Program," according to Silverstein, "arrange[d] regular conference calls during which senior Pentagon officials brief retired military officials, civilian defense and national security analysts, pundits, and bloggers. A few moderates are invited to take part, but the list of participants skews far, far to the right. The Pentagon essentially feeds participants the talking points, bullet points, and stories it wants told."
Silverstein wrote, "it’s quite clear that the Pentagon views it as a propaganda program."
Neither Webster nor others involved were charged with any crime, even though watchdog groups like CMD noted how the so-called "surrogate operation" violated long-standing federal appropriations rules and other laws against military propaganda in the United States.
Webster Joins the Walker Administration, and Makes a Splash
Throughout the 2011 Wisconsin protests, Governor Walker falsely claimed that most of the demonstrators were from out-of-state. But some are now questioning whether he recruited his own out-of-state agitator in Webster.
During last week's public information sessions on Wisconsin's new capitol access rules, citizens concerned about the policy's impact on their First Amendment rights were dismayed by Webster's dismissive attitude towards them, which she reportedly expressed by rolling her eyes and shaking her head at their comments. Many were also put off by Webster's misleading press release that had asserted the new rules, which require permits for groups as small as four persons, were simply restatements of existing policies.
Her first real public performance in her new taxpayer-funded job caused some, like bloggers at WisconsinReporters.com, to look into her actual track record. At a hearing this week, Paul Schmid of that website expressed concern about the background of the Department of Administration's new communications director.
"This is the state of Robert LaFollette, open government, transparent government," said Schmid, noting that citizens were unlikely to trust the administration considering Webster's past involvement in taxpayer-funded political activity.
In response to Schmidt's comments, Chris Schoenherr, DOA Deputy Secretary, replied:
"You'll decide whether, or not, you decide to trust the administration. Or not."