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Kellyanne Conway should be removed from federal office, government watchdog says

"Her actions thus erode the principle foundation of our democratic system -- and the rule of law."

Counselor to President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway talks to reporters outside the White House May 01, 2019 (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Counselor to President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway talks to reporters outside the White House May 01, 2019 (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, should be removed from office for violating the Hatch Act, according to the Office of Special Counsel, the main government watchdog entity for federal workers.

The Hatch Act — named for Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.), who authored it back in 1939 — governs the political behavior of federal workers, preventing them from openly campaigning for political candidates to avoid influencing elections in a partisan manner. It is famously wonky, in its attempt to draw some kind of boundary between personal political activity and how that activity might create conflicts with the official duties of federal workers. The Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) (not to be confused with the position Robert Mueller held) is a permanent independent agency tasked with enforcing the law.

The OSC delivered a report to Trump on Thursday in which it detailed “numerous occasions” where Conway disparaged Democratic presidential candidates while acting in her official White House capacity and termed her a “repeat offender.”

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According to the OSC’s website, which had trouble loading following the announcement, “the law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation.​​​​”

Their statement on Conway was stark.

“Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” the agency said. “Her actions thus erode the principle foundation of our democratic system — and the rule of law.”

The statement cited three instances: two times in 2017 when she advocated for the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, in the Alabama special election for Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat, as well as a media interview last month in which Conway argued that the Hatch Act did not apply to her.

“Doug Jones in Alabama? Folks, don’t be fooled,” Conway said on Fox & Friends in November 2017. She was appearing in her capacity as a White House official. “He’ll be a vote against tax cuts, he’s weak on crime, weak on borders, he’s strong on raising your taxes, he’s terrible for property owners, and Doug Jones is a doctrinaire liberal which is why he’s not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him.”

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When one of the hosts asked if she was advocating a vote for Roy Moore, she pauses and diverts from actually telling people who to vote for. “I’m telling you, we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.”

This direct example of a public official taking sides in a campaign resulted in a formal Hatch Act complaint from the Campaign Legal Center and Walter Shaub, who had recently vacated his role as the director of the Office of Government Ethics, which oversees and offers broad guidance to employees of the executive branch of the federal government on matters pertaining to conflicts of interest.

When asked about the OSC investigation last month, Conway retorted, “blah, blah, blah,” and then exclaimed, “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”

The Trump administration has violated the Hatch Act in the past, with MAGA hats displayed in federal offices, cabinet secretaries wearing MAGA socks, and Dan Scavino getting in trouble for tweeting about defeating a Republican member of Congress.

The White House issued a dismissive statement in response to the OSC’s report.

“The Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) unprecedented actions against Kellyanne Conway are deeply flawed and violate her constitutional rights to free speech and due process,” said White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves. “Others, of all political views, have objected to the OSC’s unclear and unevenly applied rules which have a chilling effect on free speech for all federal employees.”

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Many of the most notable violators of the Hatch Act, such as Scavino, did not go on to lose their jobs as a result of the violation. Similarly, neither former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, nor former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, were removed from their positions despite having both committed high-profile violations of the Hatch Act.

The president and vice president are exempt from the Hatch Act, but it does apply to all other federal employees.