Columnist

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, July 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

If an Obama administration Cabinet secretary, one of the highest-ranking positions in the government, doesn’t know the restrictions on federal employees during partisan political campaigns, is the law too complicated for the average fed to follow?

No.

Yet, that’s one question raised by news that Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits feds from using their official positions to influence elections.

Castro managed to violate the law in April even after four briefings on it, the latest in February, since he took office two years ago. During a live broadcast interview with Yahoo News, Katie Couric asked Castro about his endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president.

Castro, considered a potential vice presidential candidate, thought he was following the law by beginning his answer with a stipulation: “Now taking off my HUD hat for a second and just speaking individually, it is very clear that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced, thoughtful, and prepared candidate for president that we have this year.”

He explained his thinking in a letter to the Office of Special Counsel, a small agency with a big stick that protects whistleblowers and enforces the Hatch Act: “I offered my opinion to the interviewer after making it clear that I was articulating my personal view and not an official position. At the time, I believed that this disclaimer was what was required by the Hatch Act.”

But that doesn’t cut it, according to Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

Castro did the 18-minute interview, much of it about department programs, from HUD’s broadcast studio in Washington, “with the official HUD seal visible behind him,” according to her report to President Obama. “[T]hat disclaimer could not negate the fact that he was appearing in his official capacity…” the report said.

Based on his Hatch Act training, HUD ethics officials told the special counsel’s office that Castro “should have known that he could not switch from speaking in his official capacity to speaking in his personal capacity at an event or during an interview,” the report said.

Castro is the highest-profile federal employee to violate the Hatch Act this year, but not the only one. Since Oct. 1, there have been 88 complaints of Hatch Act violations concerning federal employees, according to OSC data. Five resulted in disciplinary action and six in informal settlements, such as an employee withdrawing from a partisan election contest.

Just last week, the special counsel announced disciplinary actions – suspensions ranging from three to 14 days — against three federal employees for Hatch Act violations. A U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, for example, displayed a congressional candidate’s campaign sign in his postal vehicle while delivering the mail, according to Lerner’s office.

In Castro’s case, President Obama would decide on disciplinary action. Apparently there will be none.

At Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Castro “indicated that he would participate in some additional training and get an additional briefing to make sure that when he’s doing interviews in the future that he understands what the Hatch Act requires.

“So, look, I think to his credit, Secretary Castro acknowledged the mistake that he made,” Earnest added. “He owned up to it, and he’s taken the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again. I think that’s the expectation that people have when you make a mistake, particularly in a situation like this.”

Although four briefings apparently weren’t enough for Castro, a Harvard-trained lawyer, to fully understand the Hatch Act, it is not as difficult as his experience suggests.

“For most federal employees the restrictions are fairly limited.” Lerner said during an interview. “We want federal employees to feel free to participate in the political process.”

“Really there are just a few limitations that apply to everyone that are pretty straightforward,” she added. “You can’t run for partisan political office. Federal employees can’t solicit financial contributions for a candidate. And you cannot engage in political activities while at work. Those are really the main prohibitions employees need to remember.”

It’s a little more complicated than that, but not so much that you need a law degree to understand. Some feds are “less restricted employees” and others “further restricted employees,” including those in intelligence and enforcement agencies. State, local and District staffers whose positions are federally funded also are covered.

More information is available on the special counsel’s website. The frequently asked questions are particularly helpful and cover a variety of situations.

It’s recommended reading for Cabinet secretaries.