Complaints of improper political activity expected to rise this fall

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The number of complaints brought against federal employees for participating in partisan political activity during this presidential election cycle is currently lower than in 2008, but the Office of Special Counsel anticipates an uptick during the final months leading up to Nov. 6.

Congress is mulling modernization of the Hatch Act, which restricts government employees from certain political activities. The Office of Special Counsel ordinarily sees an increase during election years in the number of complaints about federal employees conducting political activities such as forwarding campaign emails, organizing and fundraising for political candidates and accepting or receiving political contributions. This is especially true during presidential elections, OSC spokesman Adam Miles said.

Numbers of complaints, however, are lower so far this year, compared with the same point in 2008. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 20, OSC received 110 federal sector Hatch Act complaints, a figure slightly lower than the same period in 2011 and lower than the same period in 2008, when the office received 126 complaints, according to OSC.

But between Aug. 21, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2008, OSC received 217 additional complaints. The number of complaints also rose in 2010 from previous years.

“If history is any guide, as the campaign gets into full swing over the next few months, we would expect an increase,” Miles said. “Overall, we’re pleased that the number of federal complaints is lower than the same period in 2008, and believe that reflects OSC’s outreach efforts and greater awareness of the Hatch Act’s restrictions. Nevertheless, we are very likely to see a significant uptick in the next few months.”

Complaints of improper political activity can take several years to process and resolve. OSC announced this week two current settlement agreements of violations that took place during the 2010 and 2008 election cycles. A federal technology specialist for the Social Security Administration agreed to 180 days suspension without pay for coordinating volunteer efforts for a 2010 gubernatorial campaign while on duty, including organizing events and soliciting contributions. The second employee, a contracting officer for the General Services Administration, will serve a 30 day suspension without pay for inviting 23 people to an Obama campaign fundraiser and forwarding emails in support of the candidate from her government office.

The 2012 Hatch Act Modernization Act would expand the options for penalizing federal employees who violate the law. Reform efforts also are focused on redefining the Hatch Act in the digital age and easing restrictions for state and municipal employees who want to run for local office.

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