As the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) faces growing heat over Lois G. Lerner and the scandal involving targeting of conservative political organizations such as the Tea Party, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has issued a press release announcing the pursuit of cases against IRS employees and offices suspected of illegal political activity in support of President Obama and fellow Democrats in 2012.
The OSC press release announces it has evidence that an IRS employee used his authority and influence as a customer service representative for a political purpose. Specifically, the employee reportedly engaged in prohibited political activity while working at the Internal Revenue Service. When fielding taxpayers’ questions from an IRS customer service help line, the Special Counsel’s office has concluded he was urging taxpayers to reelect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name. Given the seriousness of the allegations and the employee’s Hatch Act knowledge, OSC is seeking significant disciplinary action.
In another IRS case, an employee in Kentucky who had been warned about violating the Hatch Act prohibitions on political activity will serve a 14-day suspension for promoting her partisan political views to a taxpayer she was assisting during the 2012 Presidential election season.
A recorded conversation with the employee and a taxpayer revealed she was “for” the Democrats because “Republicans already [sic] trying to cap my pension and . . . they’re going to take women back 40 years.” She continued to explain that her mom always said, “‘If you vote for a Republican, the rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer.’ And I went, ‘You’re right.’ I found that out.” The employee told the taxpayer, “I’m not supposed to voice my opinion, so you didn’t hear me saying that.”
Following the investigation, the employee entered into a settlement agreement with OSC in April 2014. In the agreement, she admitted to violating the Hatch Act’s restrictions against engaging in political activity while on duty and in the workplace and using her official authority or influence to affect the result of an election.
Federal employees are routinely warned about the consequences of participating in prohibited political activity. And, in every election cycle, it seems there are violations. Perhaps it is a result of political passion inspired by a belief in a candidate that drives a person to take action that can result in losing a good job. Some of these cases are borderline incidents where a reasonable person may have made a mistake in judgment. Often though, the actions are blatant violations such as those described in the most recent investigations revealed by the Office of Special Counsel.
And, as an example of severe disciplinary action, a federal employee with 38 years of federal service was fired after sending an email from her government computer stating: “This is funny, let’s do the Obama Shuffle. . . . We have to learn this and teach others so that we can do this when Obama Wins. Please forward to everyone you know. . . .”
In the most recent cases, the IRS has not been helped by the employees who may have felt the passion of a political candidate and their preferred candidate. In view of the political problems the agency is already enduring on the issue of targeting political opponents during the president’s 2012 election campaign, their actions have re-focused attention on the issue of how the IRS may have been used to benefit one political party or candidate.
Incidents such as these are unfortunate as they denigrate the public image of an agency given tremendous influence over the lives of Americans and is supposed to be impartial in wielding its considerable power to harm or financially destroy individuals or organizations.