Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, broke a law that restricts political activity by government employees when she called for President Barack Obama’s re-election in a February speech, government lawyers found.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel didn’t recommend any punishment for Sebelius, who apologized and met with ethics experts “to ensure this never happens again,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in an e-mail.
During a speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group, Sebelius called for Obama’s re-election and for the election of a Democratic governor in the state. The Office of Special Counsel received complaints about the remarks in March and began an investigation, it said in a report.
“I clearly made a mistake,” Sebelius told investigators, according to their report. “I was not intending to use an official capacity to do a political event. I think it veered into political space at an official event and I regret that it occurred.”
Sebelius said in a letter to Carolyn Lerner, the special counsel, that after her agency received media inquiries about the speech she directed that her travel be reclassified as political. The Democratic National Committee reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the expense, the special counsel said.
Sebelius said her remarks were “off-script” and her violation of the law, known as the Hatch Act, was “technical and minor.”
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said he couldn’t remember a Cabinet official ever being found in violation of the law. The potential for a violation has increased as presidents have more often deployed their Cabinet secretaries as political emissaries, he said.
“Once the Cabinet officials are rolled out for the political events, they have very busy schedules, it’s very difficult for them to keep their political and official roles separate,” said Painter, who was the top ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007.
“Obviously the whole point of sending a Cabinet official to the Human Rights Campaign is political, to let them know you support their agenda. It’s very easy for her to slip then into a discussion of the partisan election,” Painter said.
U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asked in a March letter that the special counsel’s office investigate Sebelius’s remarks.
Issa praised the office for its investigation and said Obama “should consider the important leadership of Cabinet secretaries and the example they must set for the entire Executive Branch,” in deciding any further action against Sebelius.
Schultz wouldn’t say whether Sebelius would face further punishment. “This error was immediately acknowledged by the Secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused,” he said in the e-mail.
Violations of the Hatch Act by lower-level federal employees aren’t uncommon. The Office of Special Counsel issued 164 “warning letters” to federal employees, or state and local government employees funded by the federal government, for alleged violations of the law in fiscal 2011, according to the office’s annual report.
Most were federal employees who ran for local and state elected offices, said Ann O’Hanlon, a spokeswoman for the Office of Special Counsel.
“It is rare for someone to lose their job because of a Hatch Act violation,” she said in a telephone interview.
The most recent high-ranking federal official to run afoul of the Hatch Act was Bush’s General Services Administration boss, Lurita Doan. The Office of Special Counsel recommended Doan be disciplined in May 2007 after alleging she had asked her employees in a meeting to help Republican candidates win elections. She resigned in April 2008.
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