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HHS secretary violated federal ethics law by endorsing Democratic senator, report says

<i>Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images</i><br/>Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra

By Sydney Kashiwagi, CNN

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra violated an ethics law that limits federal employees’ political activities when he stumped for Sen. Alex Padilla during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ annual awards gala last year, the Office of Special Counsel has found.

During his speech, Becerra, in his official capacity as HHS secretary, strayed from his prepared remarks that had been approved by an HHS ethics attorney and expressed his support for Padilla when speaking to attendees and said he would be voting for Padilla in California’s Senate race, OSC said in a report to the White House.

“In delivering his speech, Secretary Becerra impermissibly mixed his personal electoral preference with official remarks,” OSC Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said in a letter to the White House. “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.”

Kerner said that as the 2024 presidential election approaches, OSC’s report on Becerra should be seen as an “opportunity to deter violations by reminding federal employees at all levels of the Hatch Act’s restrictions.”

In response to OSC, Becerra said he did not intend to use his “official authority or influence for purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”

“I regret this inadvertent violation,” Becerra told OSC. “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.”

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.

The Hatch Act of 1939 aims to prevent certain federal employees from having an impact on elections. The law is enforced by OSC and responses can vary significantly — from a slap on the wrist to job loss — when federal employees violate the act.

Biden’s former chief of staff Ron Klain was found to have violated the Hatch Act last year when he sent a tweet from his official Twitter account that included a message to buy political merchandise for a Democratic group. He later removed the retweet and received no disciplinary action.

The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics also filed a complaint against Biden’s former White House press secretary Jen Psaki alleging she endorsed former Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe during a press briefing in 2021.

In former President Donald Trump’s administration, at least 13 senior officials were found to have violated the Hatch Act, 11 of whom violated the act by campaigning for the former president’s reelection during official interviews and media appearances.

One of those former Trump officials, Kellyanne Conway, violated the Hatch Act so many times that the agency recommended in 2019 she be removed from federal service because she was considered a “repeat offender.”

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