Minding the Hatch Act

Feds can participate in campaign activities as long as they don't cross the line.

This presidential election is drawing to a close, but for government employees the specter of political pressure on the job doesn't come around only every two or four years-it's a constant challenge. And it can get feds tangled up with the law.

In the past year, charges of political influence peddling cost some high-profile officials their jobs. Among them was General Services Administration chief Lurita A. Doan, accused of seeking support for Republican candidates at a meeting with political appointees at the agency. At the Justice Department, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned over allegations that he fired nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons.

But political activities are not totally off limits for feds. The 1939 Hatch Act, enforced by the Office of Special Counsel, originally prohibited nearly all partisan activity, but restrictions were loosened in the early 1990s.

Most career employees can run for nonpartisan offices, make financial contributions to political organizations, get involved in political groups, and campaign for candidates by making speeches, distributing literature and signing nominating positions. The remaining restrictions are tailored more narrowly to their jobs: Employees still are banned from using their authority to exert influence over an election; encouraging or discouraging political activity by anyone with business before their agency; doing political work while on duty, in uniform, in the office or in a government vehicle; running for partisan office; and wearing political buttons while on duty.

Political appointees operate under the same rules, with some exceptions. They are allowed to engage in political activity while on duty, in government buildings, wearing official uniforms or insignias, or using government vehicles, provided their actions don't amount to coercive use of their appointed office. They cannot pay for political activities with taxpayer dollars.

Members of the Senior Executive Service and officials in certain sensitive positions at agencies such as the CIA, Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Election Commission and Office of Special Counsel are held to a higher standard. They cannot participate in partisan elections by making campaign speeches, circulating nominating positions, or running for office. They also cannot hold office in political organizations.

The penalties for career employees caught violating the Hatch Act start with a 30-day suspension without pay and can result in dismissal. If an employee clearly violates the rules, OSC brings the case before an administrative law judge appointed by the Merit Systems Protection Board. Employees can appeal the administrative law judge's decision to the full MSPB.

The penalties for political appointees are less clear because OSC refers cases to the president, who can decide whether to pursue disciplinary action. This has drawn complaints from some federal employee groups, which argue that it creates a disparity in enforcement.

The Internet is often a co-conspirator in Hatch Act violations. A common violation is sending or forwarding political e-mails. The number of Hatch Act complaints reached a high of 299 in 2006 as the use of e-mail increased and the proliferation of political videos on Web sites like YouTube made it much easier to exchange political opinions during work hours.

But if you check first, it's easy to stay out of trouble. OSC keeps an archive of its advisories to federal employees and answers to common questions. And to find out whether a particular activity is permitted, you can ask OSC to render an advisory opinion.

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