“We are particularly concerned with the consequences of White House actions on career employees who may have felt pressured to help organize and put on these events,” they wrote.
Top House lawmakers are requesting an investigation into the Trump administration's alleged violations of the Hatch Act, which limits federal employees’ political activity on the job, during the Republican National Convention.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee; Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., chairman of the National Security subcommittee; Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee; and Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., asked the Office of Special Counsel on Thursday to review several situations at the RNC two weeks ago that they deemed could be in violation of the law. The president and vice president are exempt from the Hatch Act, but all career employees, Cabinet secretaries, White House aides, and other political appointees are subject to the law and the possible consequences of a violation vary by position type. The Republicans on the committee disagreed with the concerns raised by their Democratic colleagues.
“Throughout the convention, administration officials repeatedly used their official positions and the White House itself to bolster President Trump’s reelection campaign,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote to Special Counsel Henry Kerner. “We are particularly concerned with the consequences of White House actions on career employees who may have felt pressured to help organize and put on these events, potentially subjecting them to legal jeopardy. Career employees have faced severe consequences for behavior far less egregious than what the country witnessed.”
Specific instances they cited were videos of a pardon and a naturalization ceremony (over which Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf presided and at which military personnel were present); use of the White House grounds and other federal property for speeches; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s taped appearance from Jerusalem; and a Housing and Urban Development regional administrator’s interview of four tenants in New York (three of whom reportedly didn’t know the video would be used for the convention). They asked for a response to their request by Sept. 17.
They also expressed concerns that White House Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows said “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about the Hatch Act and the administration didn’t take any corrective action when OSC charged White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway for being a “repeat offender” of the act in June 2019. As Government Executive previously reported, presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed officials as well as Appointees to the Executive Office of the President (such as Conway) are afforded “presidential deference” on OSC’s prosecutions, unlike other federal employees.
Ahead of the convention, OSC ––an investigative and prosecutorial agency–– outlined how White House staffers could assist with and/or attend Trump's speech and remain in compliance with the Hatch Act. It could not comment on the Democrats' letter from last week beyond confirming receipt of it. However, Kerner issued a statement on August 26 reaffirming OSC’s role in receiving and reviewing complaints. “OSC takes its job seriously and in recent months has increased the number of Hatch Act Unit staff to respond to the growing number of complaints typically received during election years,” he said. “OSC will continue to vigorously and even-handedly enforce the Hatch Act, consistent with its statutory authorities."
The White House and the agencies maintained they took precautions to follow the law, however that did not assuage concerns from watchdog groups and Democratic lawmakers. In contrast, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement to Government Executive on Tuesday in response to the letter to OSC, “Democrats have a pattern of making up baseless scandals.”
Comer added: “They did the same when President Trump initially announced he’d deliver his acceptance speech from the White House, and the Special Counsel quickly confirmed that the president isn’t bound by the Hatch Act. Democrats continue to use any means available to distract from the president’s sweeping successes.”