Policy: Law

Kathleen Sebelius got away with violating law on campaigning by federal officials

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Philip Klein,Campaigns,Kathleen Sebelius,Scott Walker,Law,HHS

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came under fire from liberals this week as thousands of old emails were released from a near three-year investigation that had already closed without finding any wrongdoing by Walker. (Read more in my column.)

At issue was illegal coordination between Walker’s 2010 campaign staff and his office as county executive of Milwaukee. The probe led to convictions of former aides without directly implicating him.

The release of the emails brought increased attention to the practice of government employees doing campaign work on public time. This is a good opportunity to recall that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has violated a federal law known as the Hatch Act, which restricts campaigning by government employees. But unlike Walker's former aides, Sebelius didn't face any consequences.

In a Sept. 12, 2012, report sent to President Obama, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded “that Secretary Sebelius violated the Hatch Act by making extemporaneous political remarks in a speech delivered in her official capacity on Feb. 25, 2012.”

The event, which was billed as official business travel to Charlotte, N.C., was a speech to the Human Rights Campaign, in which Sebelius veered off from prepared remarks to call for Obama's re-election and the election of a Democratic governor.

Government employees are routinely dismissed for pretty minor violations of the Hatch Act. In March 2011, for instance, a doctor who worked at a Veterans Affairs Department hospital in Arizona was removed from his job because, while on duty, he forwarded two political fundraising emails to his colleagues.

Cabinet level officials are given more leeway, but even in view of that, OSC determined that Sebelius had violated the law because she hadn't made the comments on her personal time. After she received initial scrutiny, HHS subsequently reclassified the trip, and the Democratic National Committee reimbursed her travel-related expenses. But allowing officials to retroactively reclassify trips once called out would render the entire Hatch Act meaningless.

OSC forwarded its conclusion on Sebelius' violation to Obama to decide on any disciplinary action, but there were no consequences.

So, while liberals are in an uproar over violations by former Walker aides who were prosecuted, Sebelius still remains in office to wield sweeping power over the nation's health care system.

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