Pence’s use of Fort McHenry threatens Park Service employees
On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Vice President Mike Pence will deliver his renomination acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention.
In this strange year of virtual conventions, Pence will speak from Fort McHenry National Monument in the historic Baltimore Harbor. This is where the brave defense against the British assault during the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, during the War of 1812, inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The National Park Service manages it now and, unfortunately, Pence is putting Fort McHenry’s Park Service staff in a very difficult position.
It is fine for anyone to get a permit for a commemorative speech about Fort McHenry and its history — or any other appropriate speech. But, using the Park Service for a blatantly political speech, such as accepting a nomination for a political role, presents a major hazard of violating the Hatch Act, which forbids any federal employee other than the president or vice president from engaging in political activity at their workplace during their hours of duty. Therefore, if any Park Service employee significantly aids or appears in the speech — such as being a background prop for Pence — they might be at risk of violating the federal law.
In a speech that surely will be watched by many millions of Americans, it would be grossly political to directly or indirectly imply that Park Service staff are supporting Pence’s renomination.
This is not an isolated concern. This May, President Trump gave a controversial interview to Fox News from inside the Lincoln Memorial. For the Fourth of July, he commandeered Mount Rushmore National Monument for an Independence Day speech that sounded more like one of his campaign speeches.
Unfortunately, the politicization of the monuments managed by the National Park Service is made easier by the fact that the National Park Service has been without a Senate-confirmed director during this administration. This has allowed Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and other political appointees in his office to make decisions on behalf of the National Park Service, which is an operating unit within the Department of the Interior.
Just two weeks ago, Secretary Bernhardt named Margaret Everson as his counselor to “exercise the authority” of the National Park Service director. It should be noted that Everson has never worked for the National Park Service; she still does not — she works for the secretary. For those who love our National Parks, this is a sad state of affairs; it will be the first presidential term since the service was created during which there will be no actual director.
The involvement of Bernhardt and Everson and the administration’s sidelining of career Park Service leadership in key decisions likely elevates the potential for Hatch Act violations. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) enforces the act under federal law. It is vital that park personnel not be perceived as engaging in political activity, which is defined by OSC guidance as any “activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, partisan political group, or candidate for partisan political office.” Doing so can lead to a reduction in grade, civil penalties and other sanctions for the employee.
By using our National Parks for political purposes, President Trump and Vice President Pence risk putting National Park Service employees in an impossible position of assisting in “partisan political activity,” which would be in violation of the Hatch Act. These employees cannot assist in Pence’s speech beyond letting the Republican campaign officials into Fort McHenry and saying “good-bye” when they leave. They cannot appear with their distinctive uniforms in the background of the broadcast of the speech. They cannot wear or hold political paraphernalia while working.
The video record will be clear and any partisan involvement could have legal consequences. We need to be vigilant against an administration that has figured out its way around laws and exploits iconic images from our National Parks, to potentially score more points with voters.
Peter Jenkins is a senior counsel for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Silver Spring, Maryland. Follow the organization on Twitter @PEERorg.