By Stephen Barr
Monday, April 21, 2008
It's so easy. A friend sends an e-mail about the presidential campaign and you forward it to an office buddy.
With that click of the mouse, you are at risk of being fired. For a Hatch Act violation.
E-mails, blogs and campaign Web sites can be cyber-traps for federal employees, especially those accustomed to using their government computer for personal matters, such as trading messages with children or sharing jokes with friends.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates and prosecutes allegations of improper political activities by government employees, is getting calls these days from federal workers who are confused about the rules or worried they may have committed an "e-Hatch" violation, said Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit at the OSC.
Much of the employee interest has been stirred by the presidential campaigns, which have spawned Web sites to raise money, distributed e-mails by the thousands and urged supporters to use blogs and social networking sites to get out political messages.
For the OSC, the movement of politics into cyberspace has led to a rethinking of how to interpret the Hatch Act, which was written in 1939 to limit partisan activities by government workers and substantially amended in 1993.
The law prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty, wearing campaign buttons in the office and putting campaign bumper stickers on a government car. It also bans soliciting, accepting or receiving political contributions, and prohibits employees from using their official positions to influence or interfere with an election. Violators are usually punished and can even lose their jobs.
The last Hatch Act debate in Congress, in 1992 and 1993, occurred just as the Internet revolution was starting. There was nary a word about the potential power of Web sites and e-mail to shape political opinion.
Today, of course, political messages, campaign solicitations, cartoons and satire whiz across the country via e-mail. Federal employees cannot control what pops into their e-mail inbox. However, forwarding an e-mail that urges a vote for a specific candidate or seeks to raise campaign money is a Hatch Act violation if done inside a federal building, the OSC has determined.
The OSC takes into account what the e-mail says and how many people receive it, since those factors help determine whether a federal employee may have engaged in electioneering in the office, using a government computer network and e-mail account.
Blogging about politics at work falls into the don't-do category, but blogging from home may also get a federal employee in trouble.
Presidential campaign Web sites, for example, encourage supporters to create blogs on the site to advocate the candidate's positions. They also usually carry a link for campaign donations, and that can be trouble for a federal employee, even when using a home computer. The OSC may view the donate button as soliciting for political contributions, another no-no under the Hatch Act, and set off an investigation.
The OSC handles Hatch Act cases at the federal, state and local level, and Galindo-Marrone said they have been on the rise since 2000. That year, the OSC investigated 97 cases. Last year, it looked into 281 cases. Through March of this year, it has received 96 complaints. Most of the cases begin when a federal employee alerts the OSC to questionable activities in the workplace.
In recent months, Galindo-Marrone has been touring federal agencies, explaining that technology is increasing the ways that employees can get into trouble at their office desks.
That is what happened to a NASA employee in Houston.
An OSC investigation found that in 2006 and 2007, the employee used his government e-mail account to coordinate and plan activities for a political group and to assist a candidate running for state representative while at his NASA office. He also made blog postings from work to promote campaigns of several candidates, and, at least twice in 2006, urged blog readers to make political contributions.
As a result, the OSC found him in violation of the Hatch Act. The employee was suspended for 180 days without pay.
Stephen Barr's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.