Questions are being raised after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a politically tinged internal memo to employees last week. The memo complains about a House Republican spending plan that cuts the agency’s funding.
“The bottom line is that [the] House budget resolution hits USDA and its programs in a very hard way,” Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, wrote in the April 4 memo obtained by The Daily Caller.
Vilsack’s portrayal of the Republican budget to the agency’s employees in a negative light could be troublesome if the memo amounted to campaigning against Republicans. The Hatch Act bans campaign activity by federal employees.
Comparing President Obama’s budget to the GOP spending plan passed in the House, Vilsack wrote, “The President’s budget included a slight increase for USDA’s discretionary budget that funds our organization and some of our programs.”
The law also prohibits presidential appointees like Vilsack from asking subordinates to engage in campaign activities.
But the Washington Free Beacon, which reported the existence of the email Monday, cited a law professor who said the email raises concerns but isn’t a clear-cut Hatch Act violation because Vilsack did not explicitly ask his employees to support Democrats.
“I would watch these memos,” Hatch Act expert Richard Painter told the publication. “These memos are probably going to push the envelope more and more.”
The USDA maintains there’s nothing wrong with the email.
“Secretary Vilsack has made it a priority to communicate regularly with employees about the federal budget and other topics that impact their day-to-day lives, and in all cases, he communicates in a factual, non-partisan manner that is consistent with Hatch Act rules,” spokesman Justin DeJong told TheDC.
In the email sent to “USDA Employees,” Vilsack explained the reason for the memo by saying, “I want to keep you advised on budget issues as they unfold.”
In 2010 Ana Galindo-Marrone, the chief lawyer for the government’s Office of Special Counsel, explained that the “law says we retain a right to retain our opinions, but we can’t engage in political activity on duty.”
“At the end of the day, what the Hatch Act is intended to do is make sure our advancement in the federal service is based on merit and not political affiliations, and that our provision of services to the public is not done in a partisan way,” she said.