GovExec Staff | September 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

HUD Chief Carson Didn’t Violate Hatch Act at Trump Rally, Watchdog Finds

HUD Secretary Ben Carson (left) steps off Air Force One with President Trump in Nevada in August. HUD Secretary Ben Carson (left) steps off Air Force One with President Trump in Nevada in August. Alex Brandon/AP

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson did not violate the Hatch Act when he was introduced in his official capacity during an August rally for President Trump, the Office of Special Counsel has determined.

Carson was introduced at the Arizona rally by a White House staffer, and did not give this staffer permission to use his official title or know of the plan ahead of time, OSC said in a Sept. 11 email to Chris Lu, the senior fellow at the Miller Center and former Obama administration official who filed the complaint about the possible violation. Further, Carson did not hear how he was introduced, and the White House employee who made the introduction no longer works there, OSC found. The content of Carson’s actual speech did not touch on his job as a Cabinet secretary.

Lu tweeted out OSC’s response to his complaint on Monday, and in a separate tweet asked ethics experts what they thought of OSC’s finding, noting it seemed “problematic” that a White House staffer introduced Carson:

At least one appeared to agree. Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, responded:

The 1939 Hatch Act allows federal officials to attend and speak at political events, but they must do so in a personal, rather than official, capacity. Carson had potentially blurred that line when he was introduced as HUD secretary and by failing to clarify he was speaking at the rally solely as a private citizen.

OSC cited Carson’s predecessor, Julian Castro, for violating the Hatch Act during an interview with Yahoo News last year. Castro’s statements “mixed his personal political views with official agency business despite his efforts to clarify that some answers were being given in his personal capacity,” OSC said. “Federal employees are permitted to make partisan remarks when speaking in their personal capacity, but not when using their official title or when speaking about agency business.”

Castro discussed both his support for Hillary Clinton and his belief that then-candidate Donald Trump was unfit for office. OSC did not recommend a punishment, instead deferring to President Obama. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Health and Human Services Department in Obama’s first term, also ran afoul of the Hatch Act in 2012 when she spoke at what was initially billed as an official event but endorsed a gubernatorial candidate and Obama’s re-election.

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