The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigates illegal political activity by federal employees, has made news again. This latest case involves an employee of the Federal Election Commission, where I served for two years as a commissioner.
Recent revelations of Hatch Act violations at the IRS shocked no one familiar with that agency’s targeting of tea-party and other conservative organizations. But this time, OSC settled a case with an unidentified lawyer at the FEC who agreed to resign and forsake any executive-branch employment for two years.
According to OSC, this lawyer “posted dozens of partisan political tweets, including many soliciting campaign contributions to President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign,” despite Hatch Act prohibitions on such fundraising. The lawyer also “participated in a Huffington Post Live internet broadcast via webcam from an FEC facility, criticizing the Republican Party and then-Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.”
Although neither the OSC nor the Public Affairs office of the FEC would reveal the employee’s identity, my former colleague at the Justice Department, Christian Adams, has identified the Huffington Post Live broadcast (which can be viewed here) and the name of the employee, a lawyer no less: April Sands.
According to this document from a 2000 FEC case, Sands actually worked for Lois Lerner when Lerner was the associate general counsel of the FEC. Quite a “coincidence” that an FEC lawyer who was illegally using government facilities to try to get Barack Obama reelected used to work for the lawyer who headed the IRS office that apparently tried to stomp on conservative organizations critical of the same president’s policies.
If there is any agency in the government where employees need to take extra steps in being nonpartisan and politically circumspect, it is the Federal Election Commission. The FEC is responsible for enforcing federal campaign-finance laws that involve one of the most sensitive areas of the First Amendment: political activity and political speech. In targeting candidates for investigation over possible violations of the law, the FEC must avoid even the appearance of acting in a partisan manner. I can’t think of a bigger black eye for the agency — or a more dangerous development — than having one of its own employees violate the Hatch Act for engaging in partisan political activity.
One can’t help but wonder how long Ms. Sands had been engaging in this activity. Were her supervisors or fellow lawyers aware of it? If so, what steps did they take to stop it? If not, why not?
The OSC press release offers no answers, and the Public Affairs Office at the FEC would not even confirm to Christian Adams that Sands ever worked at the FEC. (I know she did, because she was there when I was a commissioner.) Given Sands’s position as one of the lawyers in the Office of General Counsel responsible for investigating and making recommendations to the commissioners about possible violations of the law by candidates and political committees, the FEC has no choice but to pull the files on all the cases she was involved in and conduct an independent review of her actions in those files. The agency has an obligation to ensure that her partisan propensities did not bias or influence any of those investigations.