WASHINGTON – A former White House legal expert said Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar violated the Hatch Act, the federal law that prohibits government employees from politicizing their office.
Scott Coffina, an associate for the White House counsel’s office in the George W. Bush administration, said Salazar broke the 1939 law by allowing his title to be used at a political rally in Montrose, Colo. on Oct. 5.
“That’s a no-no. He’s allowed to do politics, but he’s not allowed to use his official title. That’s a serious violation. There’s no excuse for that,” Coffina said in an interview.
Salazar, a former state attorney general and U.S. senator from Colorado, appeared at an event sponsored by the Montrose County Democratic Party.
The party’s online calendar encouraged would-be participants to “(m)eet and greet our Democratic elected officials on their RV tour of the Western Slope, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar …” Salazar emphasized the political importance of the county and state in his remarks, according to a local newspaper’s description of the event.
“I am here to represent Barack Obama and to tell you he needs Montrose County this November. The truth is Colorado is right in the spotlight of the nation and the world in this election,” said Salazar according to WatchNewspapers.
Blake Androff, deputy director of communications at the Interior Department, suggested Salazar acted within the limits of the law.
“This was a campaign event and he attended in his personal capacity,” Androff said.
A voice mail message left with the Montrose County Democratic Party was not returned.
The Hatch Act bars executive-branch employees except for the president and vice president from mixing their political and civil-service functions. “You get to wear one hat not two,” Ann O’ Hanlon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said.
But distinguishing political from civil-service work can be difficult, especially in age of cellphones and laptops. “It’s an odd distinction, to be sure,” O’ Hanlon said. “This is at times a hard bright line to draw.”
Salazar’s speech in Montrose came midway through a six-day political caravan through the Western Slope. With the last day to register to vote in Colorado on Oct. 9, Salazar joined several Democrats that have won state-wide office on an 18-city tour to urge state residents to register and to vote for the party’s candidates.
“When people come out to vote, we will carry the state. We will elect thoughtful and pragmatic Democrats to serve in the state legislature, to serve on the federal level, and will elect President Obama, who gets Colorado,” Sen. Mark Udall reportedly told the Summit Daily News.
Udall, Salazar, Sen. Michael Bennet, and other Democrats, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, traveled in an RV with the slogan “Moving Colorado Forward” and “Colorado for Obama.”
Democratic leaders have acknowledged that turning out their voters in a down economy will be a challenge, and Udall said the tour aimed to mobilize Hispanics, women, and young people.
Cabinet members are permitted to attend and speak at political rallies under the Hatch Act. But Coffina said that although the Hatch Act gives cabinet secretaries more leeway than most executive-branch officials, the law prevents them from doing so using taxpayer dollars and allowing their title to be used at the rally.
“A Secretary doesn’t have the flexibility for his title to be used,” Coffina said.
Whether Salazar knew that his title was being used would be a central question if a complaint was filed with the Office of Special Counsel. Coffina said that Salazar skirted the Hatch Act even if he did not know his title had been lent for the rally, although he said his violation would be less serious.
Another former White House legal counsel in the Bush administration disagreed with Coffina.
“He can’t let his official title from being used, but I don’t know if the Hatch Act forces a person not to use his title,” Richard W. Painter, the chief ethics lawyer at the White House from 2005 to 2007 and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said.
Painter and Coffina agreed that Salazar’s remarks in Montrose County were less serious than those that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, made at a gay-rights gala in February.
Sebelius was the keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Charlotte, N.C., and billed as the HHS Secretary. During her speech, she spoke off the cuff to endorse President Obama’s reelection as well as a North Carolina Democrat. The Office of Special Counsel found her guilty of breaking the Hatch Act last month.
An individual or group would need to file a complaint against Salazar with the Office of Special Counsel for the federal agency to investigate any matter.
Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, a non-partisan government watchdog, indicated through a spokesman that his organization would consider filing a complaint.
“Bottom line, if given credible evidence of a Hatch Act violation, Cause of Action will certainly consider conducting an investigation,” he said.