Feds need to think twice about political activity

Tuesday - 4/3/2012, 8:36am EDT

Ana Galindo-Marron, chief of the Hatch Act Unit, Office of Special Counsel

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Election season means a bit of extra business at the Office of Special Counsel, since some federal employees forget what they can and can't do under the Hatch Act.

"The most common violation we see, especially as we move now into the election season, has to do with political activity on-duty or in the federal workplace," said Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act unit of the Office of Special Counsel. "Mostly, it's driven by people's email activity."

Galindo-Marrone spoke to In Depth with Francis Rose Monday about some of the common mistakes feds make in regards to their political activity at work and off the clock.

"What's important is for federal employees to remember, as we move into this election cycle, that they cannot engage in political activity on-duty or in a federal workplace, which means any activity directed at the success or failure of a candidate or campaign," Galindo-Marrone said. "That would include not only using their government email account or their government computers, but also their own personal gadgets, whether it's their smartphone, their iPad or any other similar item."

Recently, two Department of Veterans Affairs employees returned to work following Hatch Act violations in which they sent emails in support of President Obama during the 2008 election. Both admitted their transgressions and were suspended for three weeks without pay.

Those cases were settled. The level of punishment could have been much greater, though, if Galindo- Marrone's office had filed complaints with the Merit Systems Protection Board, which rules on Hatch Act violations.

The penalties for violating the Hatch Act range from 30 days suspension without pay to removal. In the case mentioned, the offending parties admitted their error, showed remorse and co-operated with authorities, which led to an informal settlement, in which the cases were not reported to the MSPB.

Galindo-Marrone cautioned that many of the political actions prohibited by the Hatch Act extend beyond the workplace. For example, federal employees are prohibited from soliciting political contributions.

Galindo-Marrone described that as a "24-7" prohibition.

"Even if they are on vacation or they're on leave, they're still prohibited from soliciting," she said. "And when you look at the case law, with respect to soliciting, the board takes those violations seriously."

If federal employees are soliciting support or contributions for a candidate outside the workplace, whether it's by sending emails, knocking on doors or talking one-on-one, they will be in violation of the Hatch Act and could face suspension of no less than 30 days without pay or removal from service.

For feds who want to brush up on Hatch Act rules and prohibitions, OSC has set up a website to answer any questions they may have.

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