The independent Office of Special Counsel on Wednesday announced that it has taken action against three Internal Revenue Service employees who allegedly stumped for Obama while on the job, in violation of the Hatch Act.
One OSC investigation “found evidence that the IRS employee used his authority and influence as a customer service representative for a political purpose and engaged in prohibited political activity while in the IRS workplace,” the agency said. Specifically, the employee working at an IRS customer service help line at an unspecified location “urged taxpayers to reelect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name,” OSC reported. “Given the seriousness of the allegations and the employee’s Hatch Act knowledge, OSC is seeking significant disciplinary action” through a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
In a second case, OSC received a recorded phone conversation in which a tax advisory specialist in Kentucky in 2012 told a taxpayer she was “for” the Democrats because “Republicans already [sic] trying to cap my pension and . . . they’re going to take women back 40 years.” The IRS worker continued to explain “that her mom always said, 'If you vote for a Republican, the rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer.’ And I went, ‘You’re right.’ I found that out.”
OSC reported that the employee’s supervisor had advised her about the Hatch Act’s restrictions just weeks earlier. The employee told the taxpayer, “I’m not supposed to voice my opinion, so you didn’t hear me saying that.”
A probe of the facts led to a settlement under which the employee admitted to violating the Hatch Act and will serve a 14-day suspension from work.
In a third case, an IRS employee in the Dallas Taxpayer Assistance Center is alleged to have violated the law by “wearing pro-Obama political stickers, buttons and clothing to work and displaying pro-Obama screensavers on their IRS computers,” OSC reported. Because investigators were unable to determine whether these displays took place before or after the November 2012 election, OSC issued “cautionary guidance” in the center that they “cannot wear or display any items advocating for or against a political party, partisan political group or partisan candidate in the workplace.”
Also on Wednesday, the special counsel filed complaints with MSPB against three officials at the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection bureau, alleging manipulation of the hiring process to favor political employees chosen by then-CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin.
The allegations describe two officials “improperly intervening in the hiring process to convert non-career political appointees into career appointments (known as 'political burrowing')," OSC stated in a release. “The prohibited discrimination was based on the political appointees’ close affiliation with the campaign to elect Barack Obama, the Obama administration, and CBP’s politically appointed commissioner.”
The complaints do not name Bersin, but do cite CBP’s then-Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Human Resources Management and two other senior human resources employees, OSC said. Bersin is now assistant Homeland Security secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer.
“Human resources officials are on the front lines when it comes to upholding our merit system and preventing improper political burrowing into the career civil service,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said. “They should be the last people violating civil service rules.”
The HR officials were said to have purposefully drafted job descriptions to “closely fit the résumés of Mr. Bersin’s favored candidates,” OSC said. “This included adding improper ‘selective placement factors’ that were specifically designed to disqualify otherwise qualified candidates for the positions,” even to the point of ignoring the candidates’ lack of required experience in specified areas.
At one point, DHS’ Chief Human Capital Officer disapproved the hiring of the three political employees for career service and called them improper. But the then-deputy assistant commissioner continued to seek a way to hire one favored candidate using “a special noncompetitive appointment authority” to convert a political appointee to a career position, according to the allegations.
The acts against the three CBP employees mark OSC’s first complaints against management officials for political discrimination in more than three decades, the office said. The 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act “significantly improved OSC’s ability to prosecute," Lerner noted. As a result, “OSC can be a better defender of the merit system.”