Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, greets farmer Jim Greif, left, during a stop at the Heath Stolee farm, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, in Radcliffe, Iowa.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, greets farmer Jim Greif, left, during a stop at the Heath Stolee farm, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, in Radcliffe, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP

USDA Secretary Violated Hatch Act With August Speech, Watchdog Finds

Secretary Sonny Perdue needs to reimburse the taxpayers for costs associated with the speech, Office of Special Counsel says.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue violated the Hatch Act when he gave an overtly political speech in August promoting President Trump’s reelection, the independent agency that oversees civil service law said on Thursday. The Hatch Act limits the political activity of government employees while on the job.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a group of House Democrats filed complaints with the Office of Special Counsel regarding Perdue’s speech at an event in Mills River, North Carolina on August 24. The speech was focused on the department’s multi-billion dollar program authorized by “The Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which allows USDA to use appropriated funds to buy food directly from producers and then distribute it to food banks and nonprofits that are serving the millions in need during the pandemic. 

“Mr. President, as you saw those throngs of people lining both sides of the road from the airport all the way to Mills River here, those were a part of those forgotten people that voted for you for 2016,” said Perdue during the speech. “And I’ve got better news for you: They and many others are going to vote for you for four more years in 2020. Because they understand, under your administration, they’ve not been forgotten. And this [Farmers to Families Food Box Program] is a great example of that.” 

In its decision that Perdue violated the Hatch Act, OSC determined he should reimburse the federal government for the costs associated with his participation in the event. If that happens, OSC said it will not take further disciplinary action. However, if Perdue fails to do so and engages in a subsequent violation of the Hatch Act, then OSC will consider it a “knowing and willful violation of the law” and will pursue further action. 

“Perdue described why those in Mills River voted for the president in 2016 and gave them a reason to vote for him again in 2020—because under a Trump administration, they will not be ‘forgotten,’” wrote Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of OSC’s Hatch Act Unit. “He then used this campaign pledge to segue into a discussion about the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a program in which many of those in the audience had a vested interest ... He described a program over which he had authority, one that positively affected those present, and stated that the program would continue if President Trump were reelected.”

USDA contested OSC’s determination, telling the office that Perdue did not “encourage or direct the crowd to vote for the president,” but rather “described a prior occurrence and predicted future behavior based on the president’s focus on helping ‘forgotten people,’ ‘farmers who were suffering,’ ‘distributors who were suffering,’ and people who have ‘lost their jobs.’” 

OSC disagreed and Galindo-Marrone said the department didn’t give a legal basis for its conclusions. However, she explained how Perdue could talk about the president while speaking in his official capacity without running afoul of the Hatch Act. 

USDA did not respond to Government Executive for additional comment. 

“Even in an administration that has racked up a record number of Hatch Act violations, it is still shocking to see a Cabinet secretary violate the law in such an egregious manner,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder in a statement on Thursday. “This administration has shown its lack of concern about these anti-democratic abuses, but it’s a good thing the Office of Special Counsel still values upholding this important law.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Agriculture’s Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee, and five other Democrats, who filed also a complaint, said they were pleased that OSC held Perdue accountable. “Politics has no place in the USDA’s official operations, especially during a time of such great need,” they said. Perdue’s “primary duty is to execute USDA’s stated mission to ‘do right and feed everyone.’”

Separately, on August 25, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, launched an investigation into the pandemic food assistance program following reports of mismanagement. USDA responded to his letter and the investigation is ongoing, the subcommittee told Government Executive on Friday.