Probe: HHS’s Sebelius illegally campaigned for Obama on the job

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated federal law by using her Cabinet position to campaign for President Obama, federal investigators said Wednesday.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) said Sebelius broke federal law by saying in a February speech that it is "imperative" to reelect President Obama. She also used the speech, delivered at a Human Rights Campaign event in Charlotte, N.C., to plug local Democrats.

The OSC said Sebelius violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from campaigning while acting in an official capacity.

Republicans criticized Sebelius in the wake of the OSC report, but stopped short of calling on her to step down.

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"That the secretary violated federal law in this manner is disturbing, but hardly a surprise," a spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said. "Since almost day one, this administration has had a singular focus on politicking — not governing — that’s borne out by the secretary ignoring a strict prohibition on electioneering while working for federal taxpayers."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who asked the OSC to investigate Sebelius's comments at the rally, said he would wait to see how Obama handles the issue.

The White House defended the secretary, noting that she admitted her comments were "a mistake."

Sebelius did concede that she made a mistake, but also said the OSC should not have found her in violation of the Hatch Act.

The OSC was investigating comments Sebelius made in February, when she strayed from her prepared remarks to praise Obama and other Democrats.

"One of the imperatives is to make sure that we not only come together here in Charlotte to present the nomination to the president, but we make sure that in November, he continues to be president for another four years," she said, according to the OSC report.

She also ventured into state politics, urging the defeat of an anti-gay-marriage ballot proposal and saying it's "hugely important to make sure that we reelect the president and elect a Democratic governor here in North Carolina," the OSC report says.

Public officials are allowed to make political statements on their own time, but the OSC determined that Sebelius was appearing at the event in her capacity as HHS secretary.

The investigative office said HHS reclassified the trip from "official" to "political" after Sebelius made the comments. 

The Democratic National Committee also reimbursed the government for the cost of the trip, according to the OSC.

That should have been enough to avoid a Hatch Act violation, Sebelius said in her response to the investigation. Sebelius said "it seems somewhat unfair" to conclude that she was using her official title for political purposes, and noted that she voluntarily sought to reimburse the federal government for the trip after going "off script."

"If there was a violation of the Hatch Act based on the use of my title, I believe the violation was technical and minor," Sebelius told the OSC. "These are not the types of violations that the Hatch Act is intended to address."

She noted that the OSC did not recommend that Obama take any specific action to punish her, and said, "I don't believe that any action would be appropriate."

The White House defended Sebelius and the administration’s ethical standards.

"This error was immediately acknowledged by the secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "This administration holds itself to the highest ethical standards, which is why President Obama has installed the toughest ethics rules of any administration in history — beginning on his first day in office, when he signed an executive order instituting unprecedented reforms.”

— This story was updated at 6:36 p.m.