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Democrats probe Park Service involvement in GOP convention

Democrats probe Park Service involvement in GOP convention
© SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Democrats are asking the National Park Service (NPS) to account for its involvement in the Republican National Convention after the agency agreed to host a fireworks display following President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE’s acceptance speech.

Trump’s speech closing out the convention from the White House’s South Lawn culminated with a fireworks show around the Washington Monument, including fireworks spelling out "Trump" and "2020."

Democratic lawmakers are concerned the involvement of Park Service staff may have violated the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity while at work.

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“We are deeply disturbed that the president continues to use our nation’s park system—sites that include some of our country’s most iconic symbols of freedom—to advance his partisan political agenda,” Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallStudy: Chemical used in paint thinners caused more deaths than EPA identified Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate Bipartisan bill seeks to raise fees for public lands drilling MORE (D-N.M) and Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumTop general: Defense officials nearing plan for Space National Guard Republican, Democratic lawmakers urge fully funding US assistance to Israel Progressive lawmaker to introduce bill seeking more oversight of Israel assistance MORE (D-Minn.), ranking member and chair of the Appropriations subcommittees that oversee NPS, wrote in a letter to the agency.

The two said the display “raised significant ethical concerns, may have been in contravention of the Hatch Act, and used federal resources inappropriately or possibly even illegally.”

Trump has repeatedly pushed for fireworks displays near national monuments for various events, such as this year’s Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore. But ethics experts say timing the fireworks with a major prime-time campaign speech is the most clear-cut example yet of seeking political benefits from using government property as a backdrop.

“Enlisting the Park Service to put on a show for the Republican National Convention is another deviation, even from his own past practice, and a bridge too far in using federal resources for political activity,” Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told The Hill shortly before Trump’s convention speech.

The permit given to the convention was most likely a First Amendment permit, which allows any group to host an event at a national park that doesn’t otherwise fit within the park service’s mission. Ethics experts say it’s very difficult for career NPS officials to refuse a request, from the White House or any other entity.

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“It’s unfortunate that Sen. Udall and Rep. McCollum are uninformed and didn’t do some basic research before seeking to politicize permitted First Amendment activities. First Amendment activities on federal property are permitted in accordance with all applicable laws and ethics regulations,” Interior spokesman Nick Goodwin said in an email to The Hill.

Udall and McCollum are asking the Park Service to turn over a number of documents, including permits for the events at the Washington Monument and Fort McHenry, where Vice President Pence gave his convention acceptance speech, and “the criteria and legal justification” for approving them.

“We understand that the Hatch Act does not apply to the president and vice president, but National Park Service staff were clearly involved in the planning and execution of this event which calls into question their ability to comply with the act. Although we are deeply troubled by these events, we understand the reality that NPS staff were acting under the direction of the chief of the executive branch, President Trump,” they wrote.

They are also asking for “a full accounting of the amount of NPS staff time and resources spent supporting the Republican National Convention,” and a description of activities taken by Park Service to avoid any political impropriety.