Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated federal law by campaigning for President Obama on the taxpayers’ dime, but now that initial violation has the Democratic National Committee and an HHS aide in the spotlight for related alleged infractions.
A nonprofit government watchdog filed a complaint alleging that the DNC violated campaign finance law by misreporting the money it spent to reimburse HHS for Sebelius’ trip in a way that masked the fact that the Hatch Act, a ban on political campaigning by government employees working in their official capacity, had been violated.
“The DNC described the purpose of the expenditure as simply as ‘travel,’ thereby avoiding any acknowledgement that the purpose of the expenditure was to reimburse the federal government for Secretary Sebelius’ Hatch Act violation,” Cause of Action explained in a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission.
If the DNC had described properly the expenditures, which were paid out in April and August of 2012, it would have implicitly admitted that the law had been broken even before the Office of Special Counsel concluded its investigation into Sebelius’ trip to North Carolina, where she spoke at the Human Rights Campaign Gala. Sebelius attended the gala on official business, but added extemporaneous remarks in support of President Obama and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
“Not only is it that the DNC is not being transparent about what it’s using its funds for reimbursement of, but it’s also violating the intent and letter of the Federal Elections Campaign Act,” Cause of Action’s Dan Epstein said in a phone interview with The Washington Examiner. “Whether it’s to cover up the Hatch Act violation or to just not properly report it, it’s very clear that it’s not properly reported — [for] the reason why, one would have to look into the minds of the lawyers at the DNC.”
Epstein floated the idea that the DNC reimbursed HHS (rather than the Treasury Department) and classified it as travel, rather than as a reimbursement for an independent expenditure in order to avoid the appearance that the Treasury Department had effectively loaned money to the Obama campaign for the trip (which would be another violation of federal law, he said).
Cause of Action also noted another wrinkle: HHS’ reclassification of the trip as a campaign trip means that A.J. Pearlman, the adviser who traveled to the event with Sebelius, also violated the Hatch Act.
“That assistant’s participation in the event in North Carolina would in fact be a Hatch Act violation,” Cause of Action said in another complaint to the Office of Special Counsel.
Cause of Action blamed Obama and Sebelius for compromising Pearlman. “The consequence here is that A.J. Pearlman is thrown under the bus by Sebelius. Sebelius asked the DNC to reimburse HHS for A.J. Pearlman’s activities, which basically [means] A.J. Pearlman violated the Hatch Act, which means A.J. Pearlman needs to be disciplined, most likely fired,” Epstein explained. “Even though she didn’t intend to engage in any political activity, she was just doing what she was told.”
An OSC spokesperson said it could not comment on the Hatch Act complaint, due to privacy laws.