Watchdog says Becerra violated Hatch Act

BECERRA: Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks on Capitol Hill on Feb. 24, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra violated the Hatch Act when he expressed support for Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla’s election at an event last year, a government watchdog said Tuesday.

While speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus annual awards gala in September, Becerra said he intended to vote for the California senator. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which handles disclosing wrongdoing within the federal government, said Becerra expressed his “personal electoral preference” while in his official capacity.

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees, while acting in their official capacity, from affecting or interfering with elections.

“While federal employees are permitted to express support for candidates when speaking in their personal capacity. The Hatch Act restricts employees from doing so when speaking as a government official,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote in a letter attached to the report.

“While I did not realize at the time that my off-the-cuff remarks concerning my personal voting intentions were in violation of the Hatch Act, I now understand why they were not permitted,” Becerra said in a statement within the report. Becerra added that he received counseling on the Hatch Act from his department’s ethics division.

At the gala, Becerra said, “To my brother, my friend and Senator, and someone I will be voting for in a little bit more than a month, Alex Padilla, thank you so much, Senator, for being there for all of us.”

Becerra, a Democrat born and raised in Sacramento, still calls the city home. He was California’s attorney general before President Joe Biden tapped him to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

A federal employee who violates the Hatch Act is subject to a wide range of disciplinary actions, including expulsion from service or a fine or simply a letter of reprimand.

The Office of the Special Counsel sent the report to Biden to take “appropriate action.” The office itself can recommend punishments, but not enforce them.

A spokesman for the White House said that it did not have a comment. A spokesman for Becerra did not respond to a voicemail.

This will very likely be it for disciplining Becerra, said Norman Eisen, a White House ethics czar in former President Barack Obama’s administration. Becerra handled the situation correctly, he said, by apologizing, receiving training and promising not to do it again.

“He made lemonade out of the lemon,” Eisen said in a telephone interview.

Eisen said this was a good lesson for others on the Hatch Act and how to handle violations.

Thirteen senior officials under former President Donald Trump’s administration violated the Hatch Act in the months leading up to the 2020 election, according to the office. In 2019, the agency recommended Trump remove Kellyanne Conway, his former White House counselor, from office over repeat offenses. He did not.

Instead of doing the right thing, Eisen said, “they doubled down” and “created an environment of lawlessness.”