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Six White House officials reprimanded for violating the Hatch Act

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, 8:24 p.m.
Raj Shah
Raj Shah

WASHINGTON — Six White House officials violated a federal law that prohibits public employees from conducting political activity in their official roles when they used their official Twitter accounts to send or display political messages supporting President Trump, according to the federal agency that enforces the law.

The six employees - which included members of the press office — deleted their social media posts once they were told they had violated the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel said Friday. As a result, federal investigators issued warning letters rather than taking disciplinary action and advised that similar social media activity in the future will be considered willful violations of the law that could result in further action, according to Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of the Hatch Act unit.

The White House officials who were reprimanded were principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah; deputy director of communications Jessica Ditto; Madeleine Westerhout, executive assistant to the president; Helen Aguirre Ferre, former director of media affairs; Alyssa Farah, press secretary for Vice President Pence; and Jacob Wood, deputy communications director for the Office of Management and Budget.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

All six had tweets or Twitter profiles that contained political messages, including the Trump campaign’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” or the abbreviated hashtag #MAGA.

Because Trump is running for reelection, the Office of Special Counsel — a separate agency from the Justice Department special counsel’s office, which is leading the Russia investigation — prohibits federal employees from displaying Trump’s 2016 campaign images or using his slogan.

The warnings announced Friday were the latest cases in which high-profile Trump administration officials have been found in violation of the Hatch Act, whose purpose is to make sure the government is run in a nonpartisan fashion and protect federal employees from political coercion.

Earlier this year, the Office of Special Counsel found White House adviser Kellyanne Conway violated the law on two occasions by making public comments about the candidates in a special U.S. Senate election in Alabama last year.

Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, also violated the law when she tweeted from her official account a photo and slogan from the 2016 Trump campaign. White House social media director Dan Scavino Jr. was found in violation after he urging Trump’s supporters on Twitter to defeat a GOP congressman, Justin Amash, in Michigan.

And Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, violated the law last year by retweeting Trump’s tweet carrying an endorsement of congressional candidate Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., from her personal Twitter account.

In March, after Trump officially announced his reelection campaign, the Office of Special Counsel issued updated guidance on Hatch Act restrictions. The office noted that the prohibition on political activity by federal employees is “broad and encompasses more than displays or communications (including in-person and via email or social media) that expressly advocate for or against President Trump’s reelection.”

The office warned federal employees against communications, either in person or electronically, directed at the success or failure of a partisan political office, including displaying any items with Trump’s 2016 campaign materials.

“For example, while on duty or in the workplace, employees may not: wear, display, or distribute items with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ or any other materials from President Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns; use hashtags such as #MAGA or #ResistTrump in social media posts or other forums; or display nonofficial pictures of President Trump,” the guidance said.

Earlier this week, the office released guidance clarifying that advocating for or against the impeachment of federal officials also is prohibited under the Hatch Act — drawing criticism from some government watchdogs.

The government ethics group American Oversight on Thursday sent a letter to the Office of Special Counsel saying its position on impeachment advocacy or opinions could stifle government whistleblowers. The group also said the office’s position on “resistance” activity “also suffers from overbreadth.”

“As OSC knows well, it is critically important to ensure public employees are comfortable raising concerns about waste, fraud, or abuse in the government,” wrote Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. “Impeachment is primarily a remedy for severe misconduct. If public employees are aware of conduct that could be impeachable but fear civil or criminal liability under the Hatch Act for saying so, they may be reluctant to approach OSA, inspectors general, or Congress.”

The warning letters issued Friday to the six White House officials came in response to complaints filed by the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

The office found that Shah violated the law when he used his official Twitter account to post a message that linked to the Republican National Committee’s website that celebrated Trump’s first 500 days in office. His tweet “highlighted research done by a political party and provided a link to the party’s website and its research,” and violated the law, the office found. Ditto violated the law when she retweeted Shah’s tweet, the office said.

Ferre violated the law when she used an image containing “Make America Great Again” as the header photograph for her official Twitter page. She deactivated the Twitter account after she left the White House, the office said.

Farah violated the law when she posted two messages that included the hashtag #MAGA, and Wood violated the law when he retweeted a message from the RNC chairwoman that included the hashtag.

The office investigated four other complaints filed by CREW regarding tweets by administration officials, but found no violations in those cases, it said Friday.

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