The federal office tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, which is meant to ensure federal officials don’t conduct political activities at taxpayer expense, recently described a “prime example” of a violation the law was written to prevent.
From Washington Examiner
A supervisor within the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security who also served as a member of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Republican Central Committee had disregarded the department’s warnings. The official conducted political activities in support of Republican candidates while at work, and assisted with fundraisers outside of work, which are forbidden under the law.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel disciplined the supervisor with a 50-day work suspension without pay.
“This case is a prime example of what the Hatch Act is meant to stop,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in September. “Federal executive branch employees are barred from engaging in partisan political activities while on duty and in the federal workplace and from soliciting or receiving financial contributions at any time.”
Now, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., believes the federal Office of Special Counsel should set its sites on FBI Director James Comey for violating the same law. Reid said Comey may have violated the law by sending a letter to Congress on Friday informing lawmakers he has re-opened an investigation into emails associated with Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
“I am writing to inform you that my office has determined that these actions may violate the Hatch Act, which bars FBI officials from using their official authority to influence an election,” Reid said in a letter sent to Comey Sunday. “Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law.”
Reid’s letter provoked sharp criticism from Republicans, who accused Reid of throwing out a baseless accusation in an effort to discredit Comey and protect Clinton.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who heads a panel investigating Clinton over actions in connection with the Benghazi terrorist attacks in Libya, called Reid’s letter “laughable,” given President Obama’s use of government time campaigning for Clinton.
“If the president of the United States actively campaigning on company time for another candidate to be president of the United States is not a violation of the Hatch Act, then how is Jim Comey supplementing the record and telling the truth to Congress a violation of the Hatch Act?” Gowdy, who is also a member of the House Oversight Committee, said on Fox News.
The law was sponsored in 1939 by Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico in response to reports that Work Progress Administration officials were using their jobs to gain political advantage, or were being coerced into donating money to Democratic candidates under the threat of losing their jobs.
But some experts are backing up Reid’s accusation. Richard W. Painter, who served under President George W. Bush as chief White House ethics lawyer, said in a New York Times opinion piece that Comey may have indeed violated the law.
“Violations of the Hatch Act and of government ethics rules on misuse of official positions are not permissible in any circumstances, including in the case of an executive branch official acting under pressure from politically motivated members of Congress,” Painter wrote. “Violations are of even greater concern when the agency is the FBI.”
Painter, who is now a University of Minnesota Law School professor, said that in response to Comey’s letter, he has filed a Hatch Act complaint against the FBI with the Office of Special Counsel as well as the Office of Government Ethics.
In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Painter said Comey should not have sent the information in an unclassified form to Capitol Hill, where it was guaranteed it would be leaked to the public.
“The FBI of course should be investigating all these things,” said Painter, who decided to back Clinton for president after his GOP choices lost to Trump. “But they should never be leaking information to members of Congress who are just going to leak it to the pubic to influence the election.”
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