Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson appears to have run afoul of federal law at President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Phoenix, Ariz. Tuesday night.
One might be forgiven for not noticing the violation. It happened quickly, and seems benign at first glance.
“The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson,” an unseen announcer declared as Carson took the stage.
And with that terse, uninspired introduction, a federal law was probably broken.
The 1939 Hatch Act was signed to insulate most of the executive branch from partisan politics. While the president, the vice president, and a few other designated officers are at liberty to politick in the course of their official duties, the law prohibits most federal employees, including cabinet secretaries, from engaging in partisan activity.
As the law has been administered by a government watchdog, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), cabinet secretaries are precluded from appearing at campaign rallies in their official capacity. Carson seems to have done so Tuesday night, as he appeared at a rally organized by Trump’s reelection committee as an emcee bellowed his official title to the crowd.
In addition to his introduction, Carson used the subject pronoun “we” and the object pronoun “us” at several junctures during his remarks, as though to explicitly identify himself with the Trump campaign.
Carson’s predecessor as HUD Secretary, Julian Castro, was sanctioned by OSC for a Hatch Act violation under similar circumstances in 2016. Castro gave an interview to Yahoo News in which he advocated for the election of Hillary Clinton and speculated as to his own chances for receiving the Democratic nomination for vice president. Though Castro explicitly emphasized he was not speaking in his capacity as HUD secretary, OSC concluded his efforts to distinguish between his personal and political roles were insufficient.
“Secretary Castro’s statements during the interview impermissibly mixed his personal political views with official agency business despite his efforts to clarify that some answers were being given in his personal capacity,” a letter from the OSC director to President Obama read.
In separate instances the OSC executed Hatch Act inquiries related to Obama-era HUD Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. The probes concluded Sebelius broke the law, but rendered no verdict as to Solis, who resigned during the course of the investigation for unrelated reasons.
Sanctions for Hatch Act violations by a cabinet officer are administered by the president. As such, the president may simply chose not to punish an appointee who ran afoul of the law, as happened with Castro. Therefore, if OSC concludes Carson violated the law, the prospects of serious punishment are quite low.
The Office of Special Counsel and the Department of Housing and Urban Development declined comment for this story.
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