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Top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway violated Hatch Act, watchdog says

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON – Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House aide, violated a law last year that forbids federal employees from using their official titles while engaging in partisan politics, the watchdog that oversees the law reported Tuesday. The White House denied that she broke the law, making it unlikely she will face any discipline from President Trump.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) said in a report that Conway violated the 1939 Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, better known as the Hatch Act, twice, in interviews with “Fox & Friends” on Nov. 20 and with CNN’s “New Day” on Dec. 6. Appearing on both programs in her official capacity as counselor to the president, Conway weighed in on the Alabama Senate race in support of Republican candidate Roy Moore, OSC said.  Moore lost the special election, which was held on Dec. 12.

“Both instances constituted prohibited political activity under the Hatch Act and occurred after Conway received significant training on Hatch Act prohibitions,” OSC said in a statement. The Hatch Act forbids all but a few federal employees from engaging in partisan politics while on duty, and those permitted to do so cannot use their formal titles.

It’s not the first time Conway has been in trouble for public remarks in her official taxpayer-funded role. In February 2017, the White House said she had been “counseled” after inappropriately promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.

“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would say,” she said on “Fox & Friends.” “This is just [a] wonderful line. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Federal ethics rules prohibit using public office for anyone’s private gain, including product endorsements.

Just last month, the Trump reelection campaign came in for criticism for using the formal title of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — assistant to the president — in a press release announcing the appointment of a campaign manager for the 2020 race. The title was deleted after the campaign was alerted to the potential legal impropriety.

The OSC report lists multiple occasions on which Conway was informed of what constitutes a prohibited partisan political activity under the Hatch Act, “in a formal ethics training session, during individual conversations, and in multiple written communications.”

They included a Jan. 24, 2017, senior staff ethics training session led by White House counsel Donald McGahn and Stefan Passantino, deputy counsel to the president, and a March 1, 2017, one-on-one session in which Passantino provided “specialized Hatch Act training.” Then, on April 20, 2017, McGahn’s office sent Conway and other White House aides an email entitled “Political Activities and Interactions with Partisan Political Organizations,” that included a description of the ban on politicking while on duty. A day later, Passantino and Scott Gast, senior associate counsel to the president, “met individually with Ms. Conway to provide specialized Hatch Act training.” On June 28, 2017, Conway received a copy of the White House Staff Manual, which includes a section on partisan politicking.

GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, with his wife, Kayla, addresses an election-night party Dec. 12 in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo: Mike Stewart/AP)

After the Nov. 20 interview, OSC reached out to Conway to highlight “Hatch Act concerns raised by her interview and again provided her with Hatch Act guidance.” McGahn’s office also contacted Conway by email on Dec. 4 to remind her of the Hatch Act restrictions.

According to the OSC report, that email “included the following information about the Hatch Act’s use of official authority prohibition: ‘You may not use your official position to affect the result of an election. You may not, for example, use your official title when participating in any political activities, nor may you use your official authority to encourage or coerce anyone (including subordinates) to engage in or refrain from engaging in political activity. This includes through use of official social media accounts.’”

The OSC report concluded: “The U.S. Constitution confers on the President authority to appoint senior officers of the United States, such as Ms. Conway. Considering the President’s constitutional authority, the proper course of action, in the case of violations of the Hatch Act by such officers, is to refer the violations to the President.”

Under Obama, there were two notable instances of senior aides facing charges of improper politicking. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis drew accusations that she engaged in improper fundraising by soliciting subordinates for donations to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. The OSC referred the matter to the Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation, but dropped its probe when Solis stepped down to run for office in California. And the OSC found that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had violated the Hatch Act in 2012 by endorsing a Democratic candidate in North Carolina and promoting Obama’s reelection at a gala where she appeared in her official capacity.

Under the current president, Ben Carson was briefly in trouble after he was introduced at an August 2017 Trump campaign rally as “the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson.” The OSC determined that the had not done anything to imply that he was speaking in his official capacity.

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