It takes awhile for the federal bureaucracy to catch up with emerging technology. Not that e-mail should still be considered an emerging technology, but there is little doubt that how one chooses to use this influential tool can run afoul of laws and regulations that were passed or written before e-mail was an everyday occurrence for most people.
Here is an example. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has issued a press release to remind federal employees that using your agency’s e-mail system to engage in prohibited political activity can get you in trouble and possibly result in losing your federal job.
Several MSPB decisions have clarified the email issue and should dispel any misconceptions in the federal community that using government email to circulate partisan political messages does not violate the prohibition in the Hatch Act of engaging in political activity while on duty or in a federal building.
In fact, says OSC, based on the clear guidance from the MSPB, the Special Counsel is rescinding an advisory opinion it issued in 2002 that is causing some confusion. That opinion, entitled “Use of Electronic Messaging Devices to Engage in Political Activity” was apparently used by some federal employees to argue that sending an e-mail message to their colleagues supporting or disparaging a political candidate was no different than expressing a personal opinion around a water cooler in which employees exchange views on politics.
Regular readers of this site should already be aware that using your agency e-mail to send political messages can get you in hot water. For example, in Feeling the Heat of Your Political Passion? we pointed to a case in which an employee of the Social Security System sent his personal opinion about candidates John Kerry and George Bush to a few of his colleagues. He left government employment.
And, in the same article, a case in which an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency responded to an urgent e-mail from the Democratic National Committee, resulted in sufficiently igniting the employee’s political passion to the extent that he sent notes to 31 of his friends urging support of presidential candidate John Kerry. He also lost before the MSPB.
A lawyer from the Small Business Administration also felt the fire of political passion while at work. An administrative judge found that over a three-year period, the errant barrister had received, read, drafted or sent more than 100 emails through his government computer that were directed toward the success of the Green Party. The agency was ordered to fire the enthusiastic supporter of the Greens. (See Fire That Lawyer!)
And readers who are active in union activities may also want to take note of a case in which an official of AFGE found himself in hot water for taking up the cause of his preferred candidate. He sent an e-mail message to some 300 people announcing a halloween party to support a US Representative seeking re-election. He lost his case before the MSPB as well. (See AFGE Official Runs Into Hatch Act)
Federal employees work in a political environment. Politics in America today has become a blood sport. A reasonable observer can conclude that many politicians are not particularly concerned with what is best for the country–just what is best for an individual’s political future.
The result can be that federal employees can be in the crosshairs of a political dispute just for doing their job. If you have any doubt, check out the article on John Kerry’s Spendometer and Those Treasury Department Tax Analysts in which federal employees did a study that subsequently found its way into an attack on candidate John Kerry. In this case, the Office of Special Counsel concluded that there was no violation of law and concluded that the General Counsel’s office within the Treasury Department has given "problematic" guidance to employees for a number of years by essentially asking Treasury tax analysts to ignore potential violations of the Hatch Act. But, whether the federal employees were right or not, they still had to endure the uncertainty of their career future while the investigation was going on and probably thought they were doing what they had been told to do as part of their job.
In short, there are some things you cannot control. But you can control what you send through your agency’s e-mail system. If you find yourself with an uncontrollable urge to tell your colleagues how to vote in an upcoming election, don’t send an e-mail spouting your support to a few hundred (or just a few) of your colleagues through your government e-mail system. If you do, MSPB and OSC have warned you in advance: The price you pay could be your federal job.