HHS chief violated law restricting political activity, OSC finds

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius J. Scott Applewhite/AP

This story has been updated with comment from the White House.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated a law limiting political activity in the federal workplace when she made off-the-cuff remarks at an official event in February, an independent oversight agency has determined.

The Office of Special Counsel -- responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act -- found Sebelius guilty of making “extemporaneous partisan remarks” when delivering the keynote speech in her official capacity at the Human Rights Campaign Gala in North Carolina.

At the event, Sebelius endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor in North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. She also told the audience it was “hugely important to make sure that we reelect the president.”

The 1939 Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in certain political activities, including actively campaigning on behalf of candidates, using their official titles at political events and fundraising.

After the event, Sebelius changed its designation from “official” to “political.” Federal employees are allowed to make political comments in speeches as long as they are not representing their agency in an official capacity.

She also reimbursed the Treasury for all expenses associated with her travel to the event.

In response to OSC’s findings, Sebelius said changing the event’s designation and reimbursing Treasury should absolve her of any wrongdoing. She also pointed to OSC’s finding that she had never been suspected of other Hatch Act violations to demonstrate her overall compliance with the law. Sebelius admitted she had made a “mistake” in issuing the endorsements, but maintained it was “unfair” to say she used her official title for official purposes.

Sebelius said she has since met with ethics attorneys in HHS to ensure she does not repeat the offense.

As is required by law, OSC has sent its findings -- and Sebelius’ response -- to President Obama.

“This error was immediately acknowledged by the secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told Government Executive. “This administration holds itself to the highest ethical standards, which is why President Obama has installed the toughest ethics rules of any administration in history -- beginning on his first day in office when he signed an executive order instituting unprecedented reforms.”

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