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Political emails and Hatch Act violations

Working for the federal government has some advantages over the private sector. Job security was generally very good, as many jobs are essential and not easily replaced by private companies. The benefits were also above average, with good healthcare coverage and a genuine pension plan. And federal employees have the satisfaction of doing important jobs that serve their country.

Because federal employees are public servants, however, they do face some restrictions on their activities. One of those restrictions includes the Hatch Act, a law that limits the partisan political activity by federal employees while at work. Violations of the Hatch Act can lead to disciplinary actions by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and, potentially, termination.

An investigation of email communication from various federal agencies found numerous instances of emails that contained a name of a political candidate sent during the 2008. The OSC examined employees who sent more than 35 emails, supervisors who sent more than five and those who send fundraising promotions via email.

The OSC received 21 cases for enforcement actions. A violation of the Hatch Act had been grounds for an automatic termination. To prevent that, the employee would need to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and obtain a unanimous vote by the board that firing was not necessary. The employee could then be suspended. Now, the OSC can terminate, suspend or reprimand employees who violate the Act.

The Hatch Act casts a wide net. The OSC's website states that federal employees are prohibited from emailing or using social media to "distribute, send or forward content that advocates for or against a partisan political party, candidate for partisan political office or partisan political group."

Because of the potential discipline, including termination, federal employees should be cautious in using their work computers and avoid sending any emails that reference political candidates or parties. 

Source: Federal Time, "Hatch Act probe nets hundreds; few penalized," Jim McElhatton, September 8, 2013

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