Even though it is for a worthy cause, most working adults know how awkward it is when the boss comes by their desk with a form asking how many boxes of Girl Scout cookies they want to buy. They may already be inclined to support scouting, or maybe they just like cookies, but the entire exchange still seems vaguely coercive.
This is why the Code of Federal Regulations specifically forbids government employees from soliciting gifts of any kind from anyone or any company doing business with the federal government. Specifically, 5 CFR 2635.101 states that no government employee is allowed to "solicit or accept any gift or other item of monetary value from any person or entity seeking official action from, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by the employee's agency, or whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee's duties." This common-sense, easy-to-understand federal law could not be clearer as to what's not permitted.
Unfortunately, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius thinks she is above the law. Last Friday, the Washington Post reported that Sebelius was calling "health industry officials" and asking them "to make large financial donations" to a nonprofit entity founded by a former Sebelius aid to help implement Obamacare. The New York Times followed up with a story Sunday reporting that the donations that Sebelius was asking for were in the seven-figures. That's a heck of a lot of Girl Scout cookies.
On Friday, HHS acknowledged that Sebelius was raising money for a nonprofit called Enroll America, but it insisted a separate section of the Public Health Service Act enables the HHS secretary to encourage others to support nonprofit groups working to provide health information. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, has given $10 million to Enroll America in response to a Sebelius request. HHS also stressed that at no time did Sebelius solicit funds from any "entities regulated by HHS." This seemingly contradicts the New York Times report, which claimed Sebelius "had made calls soliciting support from the health care industry, including insurance and pharmaceutical executives."
Perhaps Sebelius did call these health care industry executives, who absolutely are "entities regulated by HHS," but she only pressed for nonmonetary support. Who did Sebelius call? What specifically did she ask for? Even if she didn't ask for financial contributions, wouldn't any request for support violate the law's ban against seeking "other item(s) of monetary value"? Members of Congress should be asking these questions and more. And they should not stop until they get answers. As The Washington Examiner's Phil Klein details today on page 36, Sebelius has a lengthy record of violating statutes like the Hatch Act, which have gone unpunished. That must change.
According to a Pew poll taken last month, the federal government is more unpopular today than it ever has been. If top officials like Sebelius are allowed to break the law with impunity, government will only become more unpopular, and everybody will suffer as a result. Congress must do whatever is necessary, including holding or reducing HHS appropriations, until Sebelius is held accountable.