WASHINGTON — A nonprofit legal organization said it filed a formal complaint Monday against Secretary of the Department of Interior Kenneth Salazar for a possible violation of the Hatch Act, the federal law that bars government employees from politicking in their official duties.
Cause of Action, a Washington-based firm, said it asked to the Office of Special Counsel to evaluate Salazar’s activities and statements at a campaign event sponsored by the Montrose County Democratic Party on Oct. 5.
Noting that Salazar reportedly told the participants the importance of re-electing President Obama, executive director Dan Epstein said the independent government agency should investigate the episode.
“(I)t appears Sec. Ken Salazar violated the Hatch Act in using his official capacity to campaign for the President. His behavior warrants attention and investigation by the OSC, as no violator of the Hatch Act should get away with such behavior,” Epstein said in a statement Wednesday.
In the complaint, the non-partisan organization wrote that Salazar might have “leveraged his title to appeal to swing voters about the importance of Colorado — one of eight so-called purple states — in this election, as well as the importance of re-electing Obama because of the supposed damage a President Romney would do for the country’s future.”
Office of Special Counsel Ann O’Hanlon said the agency does not confirm or deny if an organization or individual has filed a complaint. A Department of Interior spokesman did not return a phone call and email about Cause of Action’s statement. Blake Androff, the spokesman, has previously said that Salazar, a former state Attorney General and U.S. Senator from Colorado, went to the rally in his personal capacity.
The Observer reported Oct. 15 that a former White House legal expert said Salazar’s appearance and statements at the event violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 federal law that prevents executive branch officials from campaigning in their public roles. The story noted that the Montrose County Democratic Party’s online calendar encouraged would-be participants to “(m)eet and greet our Democratic officials on their RV tour of the Western Slope, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.”
At the Oct. 5 event, a cowboy-hat wearing Salazar reportedly told those gathered the political significance of re-electing Obama. “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,” he said according to WatchNewspapers.
Salazar’s appearance came midway through a RV tour of the Western Slope by Colorado Democrats, most of who have been elected to statewide office. Both Obama and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns have relied on political surrogates to rally their activists and ordinary voters.
Whether Salazar knew his official title would be used at the political rally is unclear.
Kathryn Carson, treasurer of the Montrose County Democratic Party, gave contradictory accounts about whether it had sent an invitation to Salazar’s office in Washington, D.C. “I sure don’t know about [an invitation],” she said in an interview. “I don’t know who sent it out.”
Legal experts disagree over the significance of whether Salazar knew his official title would be used. Scott Coffina, an associate for the White House’s counsel office in the George W. Bush administration, said cabinet secretaries are responsible for the use of their 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 he did not know if the Hatch Act forces an official to prevent his title from being used.
Media Trackers, a conservative non-profit, said it has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of the Interior to obtain Salazar’s calendar and travel arrangements surrounding the RV tour of western Colorado.
O’Hanlon, the Office of Special Counsel spokeswoman, did not say when the agency might rule on any such complaint. Regardless of the outcome of the complaint, the Montrose County’s online calendar scrubbed all references to Salazar as Interior Secretary and refers to him as the honorable and a former U.S. Senator.