Obama Administration Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did a mea culpa over political statements made at a meeting of the Human Rights Campaign in February. The Human Rights Campaign represents people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Sebelius cautioned the group that any progress made on LGBT rights under President Obama could be “wiped out in a heartbeat” if Obama were not re-elected in November. At the same meeting the Health and Human Services Secretary stressed the importance of electing a Democratic governor in North Carolina. Oops. Ding-ding-ding! Violation of Hatch Act! “Secretary Sebelius violated the Hatch Act by making extemporaneous political remarks,” investigators with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates alleged violations of the Hatch Act, concluded in a report that referred the case to the president for “appropriate action.”
Republicans, grousing around for any crumb of controversy to pin on the Obama Administration, are no doubt tingling with political serendipity. For them, the math just has to add up: 1) An Obama official made a boo-boo and violated something; 2) The said boo-boo concerns gay rights issues which were added to the Democratic party plank. And, as we all know, Mitt Romney and his sidekick…er…running mate Paul Ryan are sworn enemies of The Gay. Imagine the GOP’s delight at Sebelius’s statement in a September 7th letter to the Office of Special Counsel, “The report correctly states that I have acknowledged that the statements that you have identified were a mistake.” Not exactly a scandal of epic proportions, but scraps are scraps when you’re desperate.
There is a slight catch, though. The Hatch Act prohibits most federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty. However, officials nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate are allowed to engage in politicking in a personal capacity so long as taxpayer money is not used to fund the events or travel costs. It isn’t likely that Sebelius will be formally reprimanded since, according to White House officials, the Secretary acted quickly to rectify the situation and, well, she’s never been accused of such violations before. Plus, according to investigators, the Department of Health and Human Services promptly reclassified the event in question as a political activity and reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the expense. The Democratic National Committee even chipped in $2,500 from its coffers. “This error was immediately acknowledged by the secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. Easy peasy, tied up with a bow.
If Republicans want to hoist this particular petard aloft, however, it would behoove them to remember Karl Rovian antics of Bush Administration pasts…namely this one:
WASHINGTON — The Bush White House, particularly before the 2006 midterm elections, routinely violated a federal law that prohibits use of federal tax dollars to pay for political activities by creating a “political boiler room” that coordinated Republican campaign activities nationwide, a report issued Monday by an independent federal agency concludes.
The report by the Office of Special Counsel finds that the Bush administration’s Office of Political Affairs — overseen by Karl Rove — served almost as an extension of the Republican National Committee, developing a “target list” of Congressional races, organizing dozens of briefings for political appointees to press them to work for party candidates, and sending cabinet officials out to help these campaigns.
The report, based on about 100,000 pages of documents and interviews with 80 Bush administration officials in an investigation of more than three years, documented how these political activities accelerated before the 2006 midterm elections.
This included helping coordinate fund-raising by Republican candidates and pressing Bush administration political appointees to help with Republican voter-turnout pitches, particularly in the 72 hours leading up to the election when Democrats took control of the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years.
The Office of Special Counsel, a relatively obscure federal agency, is charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity. Certain members of the White House political staff — including the top aides at the Office of Political Affairs — are exempt, as are the president, vice president and members of the cabinet. But the law still prohibits the use of federal money, even by these officials, to support political causes.
And, as it turns out, these kinds of shenanigans have been going on in past administrations’ Office of Political Affairs, although the Bush Administration really set the bar with this one. Maybe that’s why the Obama Administration decided to err on the side of caution and shutter that office, moving some of its staffers to the payrolls of the Democratic National Committee.