Federal investigators probing possible Whitaker Hatch Act violations

Federal investigators are investigating whether acting Attorney General Matt WhitakerMatthew G WhitakerEx-federal prosecutor: 'Thank God' Whitaker is gone, Barr will bring 'integrity' back to DOJ GOP pollster says Dems are relitigating 2016 election with investigations of Trump Former senior FBI official calls Whitaker hearing ‘disgraceful’ MORE violated federal law after it was revealed his failed 2014 Iowa Senate campaign received thousands of dollars of donations in January and February of this year. 

The investigators are probing whether Whitaker’s accepting of the donations, amounting to $8,800, violated the Hatch Act’s prohibitions on political activities by federal employees.

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A spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel confirmed to CNN that it had received a complaint from the watchdog organization American Oversight and a case file had been opened. The office has the power to investigate Hatch Act violations and determine possible reprimands, but cannot take disciplinary action itself, according to CNN.

"After years of being completely dormant and only after he joined [former Attorney General] Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPresident Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Trump looms as flashpoint in Alabama Senate battle MORE' office as chief of staff, Whitaker's campaign started receiving a cluster of contributions," Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, told CNN. "It appears to violate the black-letter law of the Hatch Act." 

Neither the Office of Special Counsel nor the Department of Justice immediately responded to requests for comment from The Hill. The Office of Special Counsel is an independent agency separate from the Justice Department special counsel's office probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

William Gustoff, the former treasurer for Whitaker's Senate campaign, told CNN that neither he nor Whitaker had solicited the donations and that the campaign committee remained open to deal with remaining debt. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Democrats pan Trump's budget proposal as 'dead on arrival' Trump unveils .8 trillion budget that backtracks on deal with Congress MORE (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor, also asked the Office of Special Counsel Wednesday to investigate Whitaker for Hatch Act violations stemming from the donations.

“The Hatch Act places limitations on the ability of executive branch employees to participate in political activities,” Whitehouse said in a press release. “On their face, the political contributions to Whitaker’s campaign fund violate the Hatch Act. Whitaker had been in his position at [the Justice Department] three months before these contributions were made to his campaign committee and should be presumed to have been advised of his responsibilities under this law.”

The donations constitute the latest controversy surrounding Whitaker. He has faced bipartisan criticism for past comments criticizing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation, which he now oversees. The comments have revived calls from senators in both parties for the Senate to pass legislation protecting Mueller from being unjustly dismissed, now that Whitaker oversees Mueller's investigation as head of the Justice Department.