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HHS Secretary Sebelius found in violation of Hatch Act

Sep. 12, 2012 - 02:21PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated the Hatch Act in February when she called for re-electing President Obama during an official department appearance, the Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday. The finding could cost Sebelius her job.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated the Hatch Act in February when she called for re-electing President Obama during an official department appearance, the Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday. The finding could cost Sebelius her job. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated the Hatch Act in February when she called for re-electing President Obama during an official department appearance, the Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday.

The finding could possibly cost Sebelius her job.

Although OSC did not recommend any specific punishment, and said Obama will decide how to punish her, Hatch Act violators can sometimes be fired. The Merit Systems Protection Board also can lower the penalty to a 30-day unpaid suspension if the board unanimously agrees the violation does not warrant removal.

OSC told Federal Times that Obama also could choose not to levy any punishment.

OSC said Sebelius represented HHS at a Charlotte, N.C., gala held by the gay and lesbian advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. After speaking about HHS and Obama administration policies that benefited gay and lesbian citizens — which OSC said was appropriate — Sebelius began advocating for the Democratic Party.

“One of the imperatives is to make sure that we not only come here in Charlotte to present the nomination to the president, but we make sure that in November he continues to be president for another four years because this effort has just begun,” Sebelius said, according to OSC’s report. “It’s hugely important to make sure that we re-elect the president and elect a Democratic governor here in North Carolina.”

OSC said that if Sebelius had attended the event in a personal capacity — and not representing HHS — her statements would have been permissible. Sebelius also promoted the defeat of North Carolina’s Amendment One, which amended the state’s constitution to outlaw gay marriage, but OSC said that was a nonpartisan statement and did not violate the Hatch Act.

After Sebelius’ comments, HHS retroactively reclassified the event as political. The Democratic National Committee reimbursed HHS for the cost of her travel to Charlotte.

In a Sept. 7 letter to Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, Sebelius acknowledged that her political statements were a mistake, and said she regretted her “off script” and “off-hand statements.”

But Sebelius said she believes any Hatch Act violations were corrected when the event was reclassified as political. And she said “it seems somewhat unfair to conclude that, as a result of my off-hand statements, I used my official title for political purposes.”

“If there was a violation of the Hatch Act based on the use of my title, I believe the violation was technical and minor,” Sebelius wrote. “These are not the type of violations that the Hatch Act is intended to address.”

In her letter, Sebelius said she appreciated that OSC did not recommend Obama take any particular action and that she believes she should suffer no punishment.

OSC said it found no evidence Sebelius has made any other political statements in her official capacity as secretary.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Ohio, said OSC’s findings “underscore the importance of laws prohibiting mixing official government business with partisan political activity.”

“The committee awaits President Obama’s decision,” Issa said. “As he decides the appropriate consequences for Secretary Sebelius, the president should consider the important leadership role of cabinet secretaries and the example they must set for the entire Executvie Branch.”

This is the highest-profile Hatch Act violation since 2007, when OSC concluded former General Services Administration head Lurita Doan encouraged her agency’s top officials to find ways to help Republican candidates in the upcoming election. President Bush fired Doan in 2008, nearly a year after OSC’s report was issued.

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