‘An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities’

by Denis Boyles

That’s the official name of the Hatch Act, the law that prohibits public employees from using the title and trappings of their office to try to influence how people should vote. Last February, HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius  broke that law, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. As Politico’s Jennifer Haberkorn reported,

During a speech to the Human Rights Campaign Gala in North Carolina in February, Sebelius said North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton “needs to be the next governor of North Carolina.” She also outlined the Obama administration’s accomplishments so far and said: “One of the imperatives is to make sure that we not only come together 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.”

When the OSC blew the whistle, Sebelius executed a rather amusing backpedal. She had the appearance retroactively classified as a political appearance instead of an official one — personal appearances by civil servants at political events are allowed, so long as it’s in a private capacity — and she, the HHS, and the DNC returned to the Treasury the money the trip had cost the taxpayers. Well, to a point: the money the HHS sent to the Treasury came from somewhere. And there was no report on how much money Sebelius herself had reimbursed the government.

The OSC said reimbursement wasn’t enough, that she was still in violation because her HHS title was used to promote the appearance. Sebelius disagreed, saying calling her “Secretary of Health and Human Services” was merely a “technical and minor” error, but some say giving her that title was a much bigger mistake than that.

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