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Federal watchdog finds Becerra violated Hatch Act

The head of the Department of Health and Human Services endorsed a California senator while speaking in his official capacity at an awards gala.

WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra violated the Hatch Act by advocating for a California senator’s election last year while speaking in his official capacity, according to a report released Tuesday.

Henry Kerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel sent a letter and report to President Joe Biden detailing Becerra’s violation of the 1939 law, which limits the political activity of federal employees.

“With a presidential election approaching next year, this report offers an opportunity to deter violations by reminding federal employees at all levels of the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” Kerner wrote in the letter.

While violations are determined and enforced by the Office of Special Counsel, the president retains authority to fire or reprimand political appointees for violations.

Becerra was speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Annual Awards Gala on Sept. 15, 2022, when he advocated for the election of U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, a California Democrat.

Padilla was appointed to his position in 2021 by California Governor Gavin Newsom to fill Kamala Harris' seat after she became vice president. He ran in 2022 for a full six-year term and won.

The Hatch Act allows federal employees to participate in political activities in their personal capacity, but Kerner found that Becerra was introduced under his official title and made statements in that capacity. 

Becerra prepared remarks, which were reviewed and approved by an HHS ethics attorney prior to the gala, to deliver after receiving the 2022 American Dream Medallion Award. 

However, at the end of his remarks, Kerner said Becerra went off script and stated Padilla is “someone I will be voting for in a little bit more than a month.”

“Secretary Becerra crossed the line by conveying his electoral support for the senator,” Kerner wrote.

In an email included in the special counsel's report, Becerra said he will avoid future violations of the law.

“I did not intend to use my official authority or influence for [the] purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election, and I regret this inadvertent violation,” he wrote. “While I did not realize at the time that my off-the-cuff remarks concerning my personal voting intentions were in violation of the Hatch Act, I now understand why they were not permitted.”

Becerra’s comment is the third alleged violation of the Hatch Act by a Biden appointee, although only the second to receive a report from the Office of Special Counsel.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge violated the act in March 2021 by signaling support for Democratic candidates in the 2022 Senate election in Ohio.

A watchdog group accused former Press Secretary Jen Psaki of Hatch Act violations by indicating Biden supported Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. The special counsel did not file a report on the allegation.

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Categories / Government, Law, National, Politics

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