Tom Perez's delicate Hatch Act dance

Tom Perez's delicate Hatch Act dance
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Labor Secretary Tom Perez's campaign to lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC) faces a walk through mine fields in order to avoid breaking a federal law banning officials from engaging in political activity.
 
Before launching his bid for DNC chairman this week, Perez sought counsel from the Labor Department's top ethics lawyers over the Hatch Act, according to department spokeswoman Dori Henry.
 
The conservative government accountability watchdog Cause of Action has already suggested Perez has run afoul of the 1939 law by holding a campaign conference call during business hours. The group on Friday requested documents from the Labor Department under the Freedom of Information Act related to Perez's run.
 
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"Americans have a right to know if [Secretary] Perez used taxpayer-funded resources to further his own political campaign," said Cause of Action spokesman Henry Kerner.
 
Legal experts and government officials who oversee the Hatch Act say Perez's campaign itself is explicitly allowed by the Hatch Act. While Perez, and most other federal employees, would not be allowed to run for a public partisan office, the act expressly excludes offices within a political party from the prohibition.
 
"The prohibition is on running for an office in which some of the candidates are designated by their party, as opposed to participating in a political party itself," said Kathleen Clark, a Hatch Act expert and law professor at Washington University.
 
The Hatch Act, named for Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.), passed Congress nearly eight decades ago after Republicans complained that Democratic operatives had used their positions in the Works Progress Administration to solicit political donations ahead of the 1936 and 1938 elections.
 
Debate in Congress was fierce. Proponents of new restrictions that would bar many federal employees from raising money for candidates or political parties compared their opponents to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Those who did not support the bill called it "an ingenious piece of Republican political strategy" aimed at hurting Democrats politically — nevermind that a Democrat sponsored the bill in the first place.
 
Though the Hatch Act does not bar Perez's candidacy, the fact that he will continue to draw a salary from the federal government places other limits on his campaign. 
 
A spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that oversees the Hatch Act's enforcement, said Perez is still covered by other restrictions in place under the law.
 
The most prominent of those restrictions could stand between Perez and groups that might otherwise become his biggest donors. The act allows Perez to raise money for his campaign to become chairman, the Labor Department's Henry said. But at the same time, the act forbids a federal employee from raising money from individuals or groups who are either under investigation by or who have an application before the employee's office.
 
"It's not so much whether someone is regulated by your agency, it's narrower in scope than that," Clark said. "It's whether that person is subject to an investigation or has a specific application before the office."
 
That means Perez will have a difficult time accepting money from labor unions. Perez's campaign will have to be certain that any unions from which he fundraises have no pending business or open investigations with the Labor Department.
 
Perez has been briefed on the limits to his campaign, Henry said.
 
"The secretary has been advised that he should not knowingly solicit funds from any entity that has business before the department, including unions, and he is taking precautions to make sure he's not soliciting funds from any entity that would create a conflict of interest with his official duties," she said in an email Saturday.
 
A spokeswoman for Perez's campaign did not respond when asked directly whether the Labor secretary would solicit money from unions.
 
If Perez's campaign is successful, though, he won't be able to donate any remaining campaign cash to the Democratic National Committee. The Hatch Act explicitly bars federal employees from soliciting or referring donations to a political party or a partisan political group.
 
As for Cause of Action's suggestion that Perez may have campaigned during work hours, Office of Special Counsel spokesman Adam Miles said a Cabinet secretary is actually always on duty.
 
Anyone appointed by a president to a job that requires Senate confirmation is considered on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Miles said. 
 
They do not accrue the same vacation time as other federal employees, and they are exempt from restrictions against political activity that applies to other federal workers, so long as the costs associated with that political activity are not covered by taxpayer dollars.