Watchdog finds FCC commissioner violated Hatch Act during CPAC appearance

Watchdog finds FCC commissioner violated Hatch Act during CPAC appearance
© Greg Nash

A federal watchdog has found that Republican Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Mike O’Rielly violated ethics laws during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, when he called on voters to re-elect President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE and support GOP congressional candidates.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which polices federal agencies for ethics violations, said in a letter to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that it had issued a warning to O’Rielly about his comments.

“Commissioner O’Rielly advocated for the reelection of President Trump in his official capacity as FCC Commissioner,” OSC official Erica Hamrick wrote to the public interest group. “Therefore, he violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using his official authority or influence to affect an election.”

During a panel discussion at CPAC, O’Rielly and the two other sitting GOP commissioners were asked what can be done to prevent a future generation at the FCC from undoing this regime’s deregulatory agenda.

O’Rielly responded, “I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, the Senate, and make sure that President Trump gets reelected.”

He also suggested that voters urge lawmakers to oppose a bill that would nullify the FCC’s vote in December to repeal its net neutrality rules.

“I appreciate that OSC recognized that the statement in question was part of an off-the-cuff, unrehearsed response to an impromptu question, and that they found this resolution to be the appropriate consequence,” O’Rielly said in a statement on Tuesday. “While I am disappointed and disagree that my offhand remark was determined to be a violation, I take their warning letter seriously.”

The OSC’s decision comes in response to a complaint that POGO filed just days after the right-wing summit, alleging that O’Rielly had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from promoting political candidates or parties in an official capacity.

“Federal employees, while on the clock in their official roles, are acting on the taxpayer’s dime,” POGO executive director Danielle Brian said in a statement. “They shouldn’t be using their time—and therefore, taxpayer dollars — to advance anyone’s partisan agenda.”

The OSC letter also suggested that the Republican commissioners’ appearance at CPAC was not a Hatch Act violation in itself, despite some House Democrats’ argument that attendance at such events is improper for commissioners at an independent agency.