Hatch Act reform could put more feds in the hot seat

Thursday - 5/17/2012, 8:17pm EDT

Ruben Gomez, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Pending legislation to reform the Hatch Act could improve the Office of Special Counsel's ability to investigate potential violations by federal employees, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said Wednesday.

The Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012 would remove from OSC the responsibility of investigating potential violations by state and local government employees. Doing that should free up resources for the office to focus on federal probes, Lerner testified at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce.

"We have over a thousand cases a year in our Hatch Act Unit where we have to do investigations," Lerner told Federal News Radio. "And about 45 percent of those cases are at the state and local level."

Lerner said current law prohibits any government employee whose job is remotely tied to federal funds from running for partisan office. An example is a police chief whose department receives money from the Homeland Security Department. Sometimes political candidates running at the state or local level will maliciously complain to OSC about their opponents who also happen to be government employees. That action forces the office to investigate.

The reform bill would also add new penalties for employees found guilty of violating the Hatch Act. For decades, the only option has been termination. But the modernization bill, which has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, would allow punishments such as reprimands, suspensions and fines.

Lerner said additional punishments could encourage federal managers to refer employees for investigation.

"Many cases, we think, aren't even referred for investigation because agencies or supervisors don't want to lose an otherwise good employee because of a minor infraction," she said. "It just makes good sense to have the range of penalties for Hatch Act violations that apply to every other type of violation [outside of the Hatch Act] ."

Rep Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) are sponsors of the the Hatch Act Modernization Act in their respective houses of Congress.

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