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USDA's Perdue fined for violating Hatch Act while promoting food boxes

USDA's Perdue fined for violating Hatch Act while promoting food boxes
© Bonnie Cash

Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueTrump administration races to finish environmental rules, actions OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects MORE was found to have violated the Hatch Act in August by encouraging voters to support President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE at an event to promote the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

In a Thursday letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Perdue was ordered to reimburse the government for a trip to Mills River, N.C., where he was set to promote the new initiative, which used coronavirus aid to deliver food to low income people as farmers’ markets were disrupted.

At the event, which was attended by Trump, Perdue said people lined up along the motorcade route were “part of those forgotten people that voted for you for 2016.”

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“And I’ve got better news for you: They and many others are going to vote for you for four more years in 2020. Because they understand, under your administration, they’ve not been forgotten. And this [Farmers to Families Food Box Program] is a great example of that.”

Purdue called the food boxes a program of “compassion” and said “that’s what’s going to continue to happen — four more years — if America gets out and votes for this man, Donald J. Trump.”

The Hatch Act bars federal employees — even Cabinet members — from engaging in political activity while at work.

“Taken as a whole, Secretary Perdue’s comments during the August 24 event encouraged those present, and those watching remotely, to vote for President Trump’s reelection. His first words were not about USDA, but about the president’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns,” wrote Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the counsel’s Hatch Act unit, adding that Perdue used a campaign pledge to help the “forgotten” to segue into a discussion of the program, “in which many of those in the audience had a vested interest.”

The Agriculture Department did not immediately respond to request for comment and did not provide an estimate for the cost of the trip Perdue must now reimburse.

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The Trump administration’s politicization of the food box program did not end with Perdue’s comments.

Politico reported earlier this month that Trump required the boxes, which are distributed by local nonprofits, include a letter bearing his signature, similar to his order to sign the stimulus checks distributed in April.

The Trump administration has raised concerns over Hatch Act violations in other departments too, particularly in the lead up to the Republican National Convention. That included the National Park Service, which allowed for a fireworks display to be timed with Trump’s nomination acceptance speech at the White House.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which filed the Hatch Act complaint against Perdue, said the case was the latest example of an administration that has shown a “lack of concern about these anti-democratic abuses.”

“Even in an administration that has racked up a record number of Hatch Act violations, it is still shocking to see a Cabinet secretary violate the law in such an egregious manner,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a release. “Misusing the federal government to help keep the president in power seriously undermines democracy.”

Galindo-Marrone with the Office of Special Counsel called Perdue’s comments a textbook example of a Hatch Act violation.

“Certain topics—such as discussing candidates’ campaign platforms, suggesting how to vote in an upcoming election, and explaining why voters should support a candidate—are inherently suspect because there are few, if any, reasons for an official representing the U.S. government to opine on such matters,” she wrote.

“Doing so risks giving the impression that the government itself has a preference for one candidate over another, the pernicious possibility of which was one of the principal motivations for passage of the Hatch Act in the first place.”