Ask The Lawyer

By Debra Roth

With election near, know Hatch Act limits

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As the November elections approach, federal employees need to be reminded about the Hatch Act, which imposes significant restrictions on their allowable political activity.

These restrictions are important because the intent is to protect federal employees from undue political influence and to assure the public that career civil servants are not motivated by political concerns as they carry out their day-to-day responsibilities.

Enforcement of the Hatch Act falls to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) through cases it prosecutes at the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Pay attention to Hatch Act training and rules because a violation of the Hatch Act carries a mandatory removal from public service unless the members of the MSPB unanimously agree that a lesser penalty is appropriate.

Hatch Act restrictions differ depending on the type of position you hold or the agency where you work. We do not have room here to go through all the ways an employee can get in trouble with the Hatch Act. The “frequently asked questions” page on the OSC website — www.osc.gov — explains restrictions, such as whether you can put a political bumper sticker on your car or wear a candidate’s T-shirt to work.

The focus here is on emails, the downfall of many federal employees, whether or not the Hatch Act is at issue. Emails provide a permanent record. Emails generated on a work computer have no expectation of privacy. And OSC will find them if it decides to investigate you.

If you are a supervisor, manager or executive or can be viewed as being in a position of authority, do not use your office email to express your political opinion. Especially, do not use email to express that opinion to subordinates or to others in the office who would consider you to be in a position of authority.

In fact, if you are a supervisor, do not even use your home email to communicate with a subordinate about your views of a partisan candidate. Supervisors, managers and executives should leave their politics at the door when they come to work or engage in work-related activities outside the office.

Sometimes you’ll get an unsolicited email at work that has political comment or information advocating a particular candidate or denigrating his opponent. OSC states that you may forward the email to your nongovernmental email address. However, you may not forward it to anyone else on a government computer. Also, you may not log in to your home email on your government computer and forward the email to others. The basic rule is no political activity on government time with the use of government computers.

If you forward a particularly interesting political email to your home email address, thinking that you will send it to others using your personal computer when you are at home, remember not to include subordinates — even if they are lifelong personal friends and you know their politics — when forwarding the email. Considering some of the cartoons, animated videos and jokes about the campaign that make the email circuit closer to the election, this can be hard to do. Just remember the serious and severe consequences of Hatch Act violations as you engage in political activities.

One specific: Do not forward an email regarding a fundraiser to a subordinate. The supervisor should not invite the subordinate to a fundraiser under any circumstances. Doing it by email just provides clear-cut evidence for the Hatch Act violation prosecution.

If in doubt about any aspect of the Hatch Act, call OSC before you act and you will receive a written opinion that is binding. Just remember to tell them everything you plan to do.

Nothing in the Hatch Act prohibits you from voting or from having a political opinion. Just be careful how you express your political views at work and on your government computer.

Comments

  1. Fred Wells Says:
    August 14th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    The Hatch act applies to :active working employees”. Retirees are not restricted by the Hatch act.

  2. FED QA Says:
    September 3rd, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    A simple thing like a campaign sticker on your car can be a violation of the Hatch Act. I have to use my personal vehicle to go to contractor facilities and this vehicle had a campaign sticker. The facility was in a different state from where the person was running for office. I was told having this on my personal vehicle just using it for getting to one place to the other is considered a violation of the Hatch Act. Because I am in an official duty status, it violates it. Somewhere, how did the constitution and all these other regulations get so bent out of shape.