US Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused of Hatch Act Violation

On Friday October 15, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, filed a Hatch Act complaint against White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki after she made a statement that appears to endorse a Democrat candidate’s run for state office.

The Hatch Act is a federal law that was passed in 1939 that prohibits certain political activities of federal (and some state and local) employees involved in federally funded programs. Its purpose is to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion and that federal employees are protected from political coercion in the workplace. ​​

Among other acts, the Hatch Act prohibits any executive branch employee from “us[ing] his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”

CREW is a watchdog group that touts its mission of targeting “government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests and personal gain.” Notably, CREW’s complaints have led to record-breaking Federal Election Commission (FEC) fines for dark money groups. During the Trump administration, CREW complaints resulted in numerous reprimands of administrative officials.

In a statement about the Psaki complaint, CREW President Noah Bookbinder expressed his hope that the Biden administration would not continue a tradition of Hatch Act violations.

“While [Psaki’s] conduct does not come close to rising to the level of the outrageous offenses of the Trump administration, that does not mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law. The Biden administration should not follow the Trump administration down that path.”

CREW President Noah Bookbinder speaking about Psaki’s potential Hatch Act violation.

CREW alleges that on Thursday, Psaki made an endorsement of former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, for his reelection run when during a press briefing, she responded to a reporter’s question with the comment “We’re going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”

“We’re going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”

Press Secretary Jen Psaki

CREW’s complaint alleges that this statement “impermissibly mix[ed] official government business with advocacy…” It went on to note that “there is no question” that Psaki was speaking in her official capacity as Press Secretary, as her statements were made during an official press briefing from behind the podium.

The complaint also noted that on February 9, 2021 Psaki tweeted “… @POTUS clearly opposes any effort to recall @GavinNewsom.” This tweet came before a recall election was announced placing it in murky waters. CREW claimed that while not necessarily a direct violation, it “came closer than necessary to the situations the Hatch Act contemplated.”  

In response to the controversy, Psaki said in a CNN interview that she should have used the word “he” to indicate President Biden, rather than “we” in her response, as President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden have actively supported McAuliffe.

“While the president has publicly expressed his support for McAuliffe, we’ll leave it to the press and the campaign to provide commentary on the race. I take ethics very seriously and will choose my words more carefully moving forward.” Psaki speaks to Fox News about the complaint.

Potential consequences for Psaki’s admission remain unclear. The Office of Special Counsel is tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, but it is up to the president to determine any appropriate disciplinary action for workers who violate the law. In its complaint, CREW called for “appropriate disciplinary actions” and emphasized a need for “Hatch Act training and compliance.”  

Following Psaki’s admission on Fox, CREW tweeted its approval of her stance and stated, “We look forward to a renewed commitment to compliance with the Hatch Act from the administration.”

Post by: CJ Fisher

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