The Department of Homeland Security sent an agency-wide email to its employees Thursday morning reminding them not to participate in partisan politics, citing “heightened scrutiny.”
While directives like this are standard in election years, the warning comes days after acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf participated in a swearing in ceremony with President Donald Trump for naturalized Americans as part of the Republican National Convention, raising ethics concerns.
It also follows an announcement by Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, that he has opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s controversial decision to address the RNC.
Thursday’s email to DHS staff, reviewed by CNN, begins by noting that “we, as a department, are under heightened scrutiny during this Presidential election cycle.”
Signed by Joseph Maher, the agency’s designated ethics official, the email references the Hatch Act, which stipulates that most executive-branch officials must not engage in political activity in an official capacity at any time, and notes that “certain employees are subject to greater restrictions by law.”
“These are career employees who are members of the Senior Executive Service, U.S. Secret Service employees, employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, Administrative Law Judges, or Contract Appeals Board,” it adds. “In addition, as a matter of long-standing DHS policy, political appointees in the Department are also considered further restricted.”
Pompeo’s participation in the event, which came in the form of a speech which he recorded while on a diplomatic trip to Israel, followed a similar email to State Department staff a month earlier, reminding employees to “not improperly engage the Department of State in the political process,” according to a cable obtained by CNN. The State Department defended Pompeo’s actions saying he participated in his personal capacity.
The President and vice president are among the few exceptions to the Hatch Act. However, Cabinet secretaries and other top federal officials are expected to make clear distinctions between any of their official duties and their campaign activities if they are to avoid potential problems.
The Office of Special Counsel is a government body charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, a law passed in 1939 that aims to prevent the government from influencing elections or acting in a partisan manner.
Hatch Act penalties can range from an official reprimand to a civil penalty of up to $1,000. More serious infringements can bring suspension, termination or a ban of up to five years from federal employment for individuals.
In videos aired Monday, Trump met with different groups of Americans, including hostages who had been freed by his administration, individuals who had recovered from coronavirus, and Americans being sworn in as citizens.
By labeling the videos routine examples of “official events,” the White House seemed to excuse the use of government resources that went into them – including the participation of Wolf and a group of Marines who were seen at the start.
Such accusations also were made during the previous administrations.
Castro’s brother, former President Barack Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro, for example, was cited for a Hatch Act violation when he responded to journalist Katie Couric’s questions about the 2016 presidential race and his own chances of being chosen as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
However, this year’s extraordinary circumstances due to the global pandemic have prompted an unusual blur in the use of public office – including the White House – for this year’s Republican National Convention, raising concerns that the standard for separating partisan politics from the government has been skewed.