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Hatch Act complaints up 144 percent over a decade

Complaints about illegal political activity among federal employees received by the Office of Special Counsel have shot up 144 percent over a decade, according to a review of OSC annual reports to Congress by the law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC.

The number of Hatch Act violations received by the OSC rose to 451 complaints in 2011, up from 185 complaints in 2001.

Furthermore, Hatch Act warning letters issued by the OSC increased 178 percent as well, from 59 in 2001 to 164 in 2011. The OSC issues warning letters to the employee involved when violations are “not sufficiently egregious to warrant prosecution,” according to the OSC website.

The Hatch Act prohibits executive agency employees from engaging in political activity intended to affect the result of an election. It prohibits political participation by federal employees in the workplace. Some federal employees are banned from all participation in political participation, even on their own time, including employees in law enforcement and intelligence.

Hatch Act complaints can be filed by the executive branch, D.C. government, and some local and state governments as non-profit organization employees who are covered by the federal law.

Last week, the watchdog group Cause of Action released documents showing a potential Hatch Act violation by two FAA supervisor who may have told employees how to vote in order to keep their jobs during a meeting.

One of the supervisors, John J. Hickey, told employees at a May 23 staff meeting at the Seattle Flight Standards Division Office that “if the Republicans win office our jobs may be effected (furloughs) … if the Democrats win office then our jobs would not be effected [sic],” according to one e-mail.

“If what has been reported is true, it is a clear violation of the Hatch Act, and the guilty parties should suffer the consequences. It is totally inappropriate for federal workers to engage in partisan politics on the job,” said House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, a Wisconsin Republican.

According to Cause of Action, the OSC has begun an investigation on the potential violation.

Last month, the OSC announced two separate punishments on two employees charged Hatch Act violations.

A Social Security Administration technology specialist will serve a 180-day suspension without pay after he recruited and enlisted co-workers, organized and advised on campaign events, and asked people to donate to a 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

In a separate case, a General Services Administration contracting officer will serve a 30-day suspension without pay for using company resources inviting co-workers to a political fundraiser.

“While these suspensions are certainly severe, federal employees need to be aware that a Hatch Act violation is a terminable offense,” said John P. Mahoney, partner and chair of the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at Tully Rinckey PLLC.

“Federal employees must keep this law on their radar because all it takes is an e-mail or a few words for a Hatch Act violation to occur,” he continued. “Federal careers that spanned years or decades are ruined in seconds.”

Under the law, the default penalty for a Hatch Act violation is removal. The Merit Systems Protection Board could hand down a 30-day suspension, but a unanimous board vote is required for this lighter punishment.

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