Election Season and Hatch Act Don’t Mix

Two recent Hatch Act violations serve as a reminder to federal employees about risks to their jobs during an election season. Some federal employees are even subject to violations outside of the office.

The Hatch Act is designed to prevent corruption in politics and to protect federal employees from political influence. It restricts federal employees from any political participation in the workplace.

According to federal employment law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC, the number of Hatch Act complaints received by the Office of Special Counsel has surged in the last decade. In FY 2011, it received 451 new Hatch Act complaints, a 144% increase over the number in FY 2001. The number of warning letters issued by the OSC was up 178% in the same time period from 59 to 164.

OSC announced two violations by two separate employees in the past month. A technology specialist at the Social Security Administration will serve a 180-day suspension without pay after he recruited and enlisted coworkers, organized and advised on campaign events, and even asked people to contribute to a 2010 gubernatorial candidate’s campaign. In another instance, a contracting officer for the General Services Administration will serve a 30-day suspension without pay for using company resources to invite co-workers to a political fundraiser.

The default penalty for a Hatch Act violation is termination. The Merit Systems Protection Board can issue a 30 day suspension, but a unanimous Board vote is required for this alternative, lighter punishment.

Speaking on the two recent violations reported by OSC, John P. Mahoney, partner and chair of the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at Tully Rinckey PLLC said, “While these suspensions are certainly severe, federal employees need to be aware that a Hatch Act violation is a terminable offense. Federal employees must keep this law on their radar because all it takes is an e-mail or a few words for a Hatch Act violation to occur. Federal careers that spanned years or decades are ruined in seconds.”

Mahoney also reminded federal employees that there is no expectation of privacy at work, and this includes e-mails and telephone calls. The distribution of fliers, posters, and advertisements, as well as wearing political pins, are all banned from the federal workplace.

For some federal employees, Hatch Act violations can extend beyond the office. Federal employees classified as a “Further Restricted Employee,” including law enforcement, intelligence, or even an administrative judge, are banned from all participation, regardless of the time and place. This can include activities on their own time or in their own homes.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.