September 10, 2013
Hatch Act probe nets hundreds; few penalized
Federal Times reports: During the fall 2008 presidential campaigns by then-Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, an Education Department civil rights attorney zipped off an email that favorably compared President Obama’s education credentials against those of then-Presidential candidate John McCain, adding “Please send this to your friends and colleagues who vote.” That was only one of 204 emails by the attorney that investigators thought were potentially unlawful under the Hatch Act, which bars political activity by civil servants in the workplace.
In a separate exchange, a former Education Department executive sent an email on her work account about an upcoming sportsman-themed fundraiser for the McCain campaign. “Feel free to forward this to anyone who you think might be interested in attending,” the message read. In all, 870 Education Department employees — roughly one out of five at the agency — were found by investigators to have sent at least one email containing the name of a 2008 political candidate. Of those employees, the department’s inspector general’s office referred 21 cases to the Office of Special Counsel, the government’s top enforcer of the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act bars partisan activity by civil servants in the workplace. Among other activities, the Act prohibits “participation in political activities while on duty, in uniform, in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties.” The case raises questions about how committed agencies are to enforcing the Hatch Act as well as the amount of time spent by the employees reading and writing politically oriented emails.
Until recently, OSC had limited options in pursuing discipline. Violations meant automatic firing unless the Merit Systems Protection Board found, by unanimous vote, that a violation didn’t warrant firing, in which case suspension was an option. Under new rules put in place by Congress after this Education Department investigation, OSC now can also fine, suspend or reprimand employees.