Democrats seek probe into DHS chief for possible Hatch Act violations

Bonnie Cash

House Democrats are seeking a federal investigation into whether the head of the Homeland Security Department participated illegally in the Republican convention this week.

In a letter sent Wednesday to U.S. special counsel Henry Kerner, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) suggested that Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary, violated the Hatch Act by appearing with President Trump before the GOP’s virtual convention Tuesday night, when he naturalized five new American citizens.

The Hatch Act restricts executive branch employees from promoting political interests — even those of their boss — during their normal course of duties. Thompson said Wolf likely trampled on it by “engaging in political activity while acting in an official capacity.”

“This is an unprecedented politicization of the naturalization ceremony – an official function of the Department of Homeland Security,” wrote Thompson, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Other Democrats are casting an even wider net.

In a separate Aug. 26 letter to Kerner, Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) pressed the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to investigate any federal employee appearing in a formal role to promote a political agenda during the Republican convention.

The lawmakers were critical of Trump for using the convention stage to pardon a convicted bank robber. But like Thompson, they are particularly leery of Wolf — and any “other senior members of the Trump Administration” — who conducted the naturalization ceremony in the Great Hall of the White House during prime time Tuesday night.

“These actions were clearly directed toward the specific success of a political party and candidates in a partisan race, including President Donald J. Trump,” Krishnamoorthi and Beyer wrote.

“Through their actions, these officials mixed official government business with political activities as part of one of the largest political campaign events of the year,” they added.

The Homeland Security Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The debate over the obscure Hatch Act has reached a fever pitch this week as Trump has defied long-standing precedent governing national party conventions by using the trappings of the presidency to promote his reelection.

Aside from Wolf, Melania Trump also used the stage of the White House to endorse her husband’s bid.

And Mike Pompeo ignited a separate firestorm, not only for becoming the first sitting secretary of State to speak at a convention but also for recording his speech from Jerusalem during an official, taxpayer-backed diplomatic visit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The department defended the unprecedented move, saying Pompeo was speaking in a personal capacity and not tapping agency resources.

Unconvinced, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s oversight subpanel, has launched an investigation.

Kerner was appointed by Trump in 2017 after working on investigative committees for Republicans in both chambers. But he’s hardly shied away from going after Trump officials during his term at OSC. Last year, the agency issued a scathing report finding that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had violated the Hatch Act so frequently — and with such contempt — that it recommended “that she be removed from federal service.”

Trump declined, suggesting the Hatch Act encroached on Conway’s rights to free speech.

Kerner, hoping to distance the OSC from a brewing political fight over convention speakers, issued a preemptive statement Wednesday, emphasizing that while his agency has jurisdiction over gauging Hatch Act violations, it’s the Justice Department that’s responsible for any enforcement.

“OSC’s role does not include grandstanding or holding press conferences about potential violations that may or may not occur,” Kerner said in the statement.

“Ultimately, officials and employees choose whether to comply with the law,” he added. “Once they make that choice, it is OSC’s statutory role to receive complaints, investigate alleged Hatch Act violations, and determine which ones warrant prosecution.”

Because the Justice Department is almost certain not to pursue Hatch Act violations by Trump officials, the Democratic calls for OSC investigations are more potent as election-year messaging tools than practical takedowns of sitting officials. And some party leaders are already trying to shift the discussion to more pressing issues.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday bashed the apparent Hatch Act violations surrounding the GOP convention — particularly Pompeo’s Jerusalem speech — as “appalling.” But she also moved the topic quickly back to the coronavirus pandemic and the partisan impasse over the next round of relief.

“I care more about that than about whether the refurbished Rose Garden is appropriately under the Hatch Act,” she told MSNBC.

Tags 2020 republican convention Benjamin Netanyahu Bennie Thompson Chad Wolf Donald Trump Hatch Act Joaquin Castro Kellyanne Conway Melania Trump Mike Pompeo Nancy Pelosi Raja Krishnamoorthi
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