Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar may have violated federal law during his appearance at an Obama campaign event in Colorado on Wednesday.
The Hatch Act limits how federal employees in the executive branch of government may engage in partisan political activity. For instance, they may not use their official titles at political events. But Salazar was presented as “Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar” in the Montrose County Democratic Party’s online event calendar.
In his remarks, Salazar stressed the importance of re-electing President Barack Obama.
“I am here to represent Barack Obama and to tell you he needs Montrose County this November,” he said. “The truth is Colorado is right in the spotlight of the nation and the world in this election.”
Vice President Joe Biden also spoke at the campaign rally.
Scott Coffina, a former associate counsel to President George Bush, said the use of Salazar’s title was a clear violation of the Hatch Act.
“The violation is the use of his title in a political setting,” he said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “You’re not allowed to use your official title or influence to affect the outcome of an election.”
If guilty, Salazar would be the second member of Obama’s Cabinet to break the law. In September, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel determined that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebellius had violated the Hatch Act during a speech given to the Human Rights Campaign last February in which she called for the president’s re-election. Republicans demanded that Obama dismiss the secretary, but she was never formally punished.
Both incidents are firing offenses under the Hatch Act, according to Coffina.
“Technically they would both be subject to termination for what are very different violations, because the way the law is set up, the presumptive penalty is termination,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s fair, but that’s the law.”
The Daily Caller News Foundation previously reported that complaints against civil servants for violating the Hatch Act increased 114 percent over the last decade.
Even though Salazar may not have been aware that his title was being used in an illegal way, Cabinet-level officials should set a better example, said Coffina.
“People in agencies that make relatively innocent mistakes could get fired, and some do,” he said. “It sort of shows what I think is a lack of attentiveness to this law by the White House when a Cabinet secretary is not subject to the same standards as anyone in her department would be.”
Sean Paige, deputy director of Americans for Prosperity in Colorado, said there was a double standard for people like Salazar and Sebellius.
“There seems to be a double standard, where if you’re just a run-of-the-mill government worker and you get caught politicizing the job, you get fired, but if you’re a Cabinet-level official and your boss is in a tight election, anything goes,” he said in an interview with The DC News Foundation.
Salazar could not be reached for comment, but a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior told The Colorado Observer that the secretary’s actions were lawful.
The Office of Special Counsel will only investigate the matter if a person or group files a complaint.
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