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Political campaigning at the IRS

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On April 9, the Washington Times reported that three employees of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are being investigated for inappropriate political activity.

Here is what is now being reported. According to a press release issued by the Office of Special Counsel on April 9, an IRS employee in Kentucky said in a recorded conversation with a taxpayer “if you vote for a Republican, the rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer.” In the conversation, the employee told the taxpayer she was not allowed to state her political opinions and asked the taxpayer not to say anything.

It is also reported at an IRS employee working with a customer on the agency's help line urged taxpayers “to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name.”

The IRS is already taking political fire for targeting conservative political groups. The actions were presumably taken in order to discourage or disenfranchise these groups from participating in efforts to defeat President Obama in his 2012 election campaign. The latest accusations are likely to keep the issue on the news pages despite the efforts by some to minimize the issue.

Federal employees are restricted from many forms of political activity by the Hatch Act. The rationale is that the civil servants of our country are hired to serve all Americans, regardless of their political beliefs, and that government resources and money should not be used by employees to further the interest of any specific political party.

It is fairly common for a federal employee to be fired or to receive a significant suspension when an employee is found to be violating the Hatch Act. For example, in 2012, a contracting officer from the General Services Administration (GSA) who was campaigning for President Obama from her office received a 30 day suspension.

In the same month, a technology specialist at the Social Security Administration was penalized with a 180-day suspension without pay after he recruited and enlisted coworkers, organized and advised on campaign events, and asked people to contribute to a 2010 gubernatorial candidate’s campaign.

And, as an example of more severe action, a federal employee with 38 years of federal service was fired after sending an email from her government computer stating: “This is funny, let’s do the Obama Shuffle. . . . We have to learn this and teach others so that we can do this when Obama Wins. Please forward to everyone you know. . . .”

Federal employees are routinely warned about the consequences of participating in prohibited political activity. And, in every election cycle, it seems there are violations. Perhaps it is a result of political passion inspired by a belief in a candidate that drives a person to take action that can result in losing a good job. Some of these cases are borderline incidents where a reasonable person may have made a mistake in judgment. Often though, the actions are blatant violations such as those described in the Dallas Office of the IRS above.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is the federal agency that is responsible for investigating allegations that a federal official is engaging in improper political activity. If the OSC charges an employee with violating the Hatch Act, those charges are adjudicated before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The MSPB decides of the charges are valid. The default penalty for a Hatch Act violation is firing the employee. The MSPB can issue a 30 day suspension, but a unanimous vote by the MSPB vote is required for this alternative, lighter punishment.

There is a long list of prohibitions on political activity by federal employees cited by the OSC including:

  • Using their official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the result of an election.
  • Using their official titles or positions while engaged in political activity.
  • Inviting subordinate employees to political events or otherwise suggest to subordinates that they attend political events or undertake any partisan political activity.
  • Hosting a political fundraiser.
  • Collecting contributions or selling tickets to political fundraising functions.
  • Knowingly solicit or discourage the participation in any political activity of anyone who has business pending before their employing office.

There are further restrictions on political activity by employees from a list of specified federal agencies. Employees of these agencies are generally prohibited from engaging in partisan political management or partisan political campaigns.

The role of the Internal Revenue Service in the 2012 presidential election is still unresolved. Perhaps the efforts to determine the agency's role will shift primarily to lower level federal employees engaging in prohibited political activity rather than the broader issue about the role of politicians. As political observer Charles Krauthammer noted in an interview on April 9, “The administration wants to stonewall. If the press is not willing to do anything on its own because it is not interested, then [the administration] will probably succeed…It looks as if the trail is cold.”

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