The caller wanted to know whether she could bring a balloon to the office.
"How big is it?" asked John Erck.
"Small," said the woman.
Erck thought about it. The balloon promoted a congressional candidate, and the woman was a federal employe, prohibited from campaigning by the 1939 Hatch Act. But the Hatch Act has been interpreted to allow some federal employes, though not postal workers, to wear campaign buttons or bring small campaign posters to work.
"With a small balloon, I don't see any problems," Erck replied.
For the past two months, such queries have been coming in by the score to the Merit Systems Protection Board from some of the 2.9 million bureaucrats covered by the Hatch Act.
"Most of our work is advisory," said Erck's boss, Bill O'Connor, in his first election season as the agency's special counsel. Although the original purpose of the Hatch Act was to protect career employes from the political demands of their bosses, there are have been few reports of bosses strong-arming employes in recent years. Most employes just want to know what they can do.
Can they stuff envelopes? "Generally I'd say 'Don't,' " said O'Connor. Can they make speeches for a candidate? "Generally I'd say, 'Don't.' " Can they give to political action committees? "You can have a PAC with money collected from federal employes, but not one managed by federal employes," O'Connor said.
O'Connor's office is investigating 80 possible Hatch Act violations, with 15 to 20 of those "in some status of litigation."