By her own admission, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius committed a clear violation of the Hatch Act when she traveled to North Carolina—at taxpayer expense—and gave a speech to an organization that represents gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals. In that speech, she urged the attendees to elect a Democratic governor in that state and told them that their rights would be “wiped out in a heartbeat” if President Obama is not re-elected.
Her attempt now to minimize the violation as a “technical” one suggests, though, that she still does not take the law seriously enough, and sends entirely the wrong message to hundreds of thousands of government employees who are governed by it. The Hatch Act has been on the books since 1939, and every federal official is advised about its prohibitions against government employees engaging in partisan political activity.
Secretary Sebelius is, of course, entitled to her personal opinions and her constitutional right to free speech. Further, it would surprise no one to learn that, as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, she supports his re-election, and that, as a former Democratic governor of Kansas, she would prefer that Democrats be elected as governors rather than Republicans. Nonetheless, government officials are supposed to serve the interests of all Americans, not just Democrats or Republicans, and, in her zeal to help her political party, she blurred what should have been a clear distinction between her personal beliefs and her actions as a public official.
Although the Secretary’s trip has now been reclassified from “official” to “political” and the taxpayers have been reimbursed for the costs of that trip, this was a necessary but insufficient response, particularly given the Secretary’s subsequent statement that she considers the violation to be “technical and minor.”
The matter has now been referred by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to the President for “appropriate action.” At the very least, this should result in a reprimand. It is important to reaffirm that public service is more important than partisan politics, and that high-level public officials must take special care to assure the public that taxpayer dollars are spent to serve their interests, not the interests of a particular candidate or political party.