A troubling pattern of illegal campaigning by government officials, including two members of President Obama’s cabinet, is raising questions about the federal oversight agency that monitors such infractions.
The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates federal employees for engaging in partisan politics, previously found that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did indeed break the law last year when she campaigned for President Obama during an event in North Carolina. But according to new information obtained by watchdog organization Cause of Action, the DNC improperly reimbursed the federal government for the trip.
The DNC fired back at Cause of Action, calling the accusation “utter nonsense.”
“This is utter nonsense being peddled by right-wing partisans who have nothing better to do than dredge up an issue that has long since been resolved,” said DNC spokesperson Brad Woodhouse in a statement.
Sebelius may have also broken the law when she attended a campaign event for Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown’s campaign reimbursed HHS for her trip, indicating that the visit was political in nature.
The penalty for Sebelius’s North Carolina violation alone should have been termination, or a 30-day suspension. Instead, the Obama administration chose not to take any action against her.
The Hatch Act of 1939 restricts federal government employees’ from participating in partisan politics in their capacity as public officials. Infractions of the law are investigated by the OSC, which is headed by a presidential appointee.
But the OSC isn’t pursuing Hatch Act violators in the Obama administration as diligently as it should, said a Cause of Action spokesperson.
“It’s kind of this repeating, overarching theme that OSC is not pursuing Hatch Act violations when and how it should, and it’s a great concern to us as a government accountability organization,” said Mary Beth Hutchins, communications director of Cause of Action, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “OSC is taxpayer funded. It is there in part to hold federal employees accountable to the law, and we think they’re not doing that.”
An OSC investigation of another Obama Cabinet member—Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar—is still pending. Salazar is accused of violating the Hatch Act due to his participation in a campaign rally for Obama in Colorado last October.
Given that Salazar is vacating his position in March, OSC is proceeding too slowly, said Hutchins.
“As soon as he leaves office there is really no repercussion for him for violating the Hatch Act,” she said. “We think that if OSC drags its heels on this it’s sending a message to every Cabinet secretary that ‘if you violate the Hatch Act toward the end of your term and announce you are leaving, you kind of get a free shot because we don’t have our act together enough to complete our investigation and hold you accountable to the law.’”
Taken together, OSC’s failings constitute a “breakdown of accountability,” according to Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein.
“The ripple effects of their failures mean that numerous agency employees are potentially getting away with breaking the law,” he said in a statement.
Cause of Action wrote a letter to California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asking him to investigate OSC’s efficacy.
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