Work and politics don’t always mix. In the case of many federal and state government workers, it is even illegal to mix the two. The most notable law in this regard is the Hatch Act.
Passed in 1939, the law limits what government employees can do politically. The dual purpose of the measure is to ensure that workers aren’t subjected to political coercion on the job, and make sure workers are promoted on merit, rather than by political patronage. Administration of the law is the responsibility of the independent Office of Special Counsel. Successful prosecution of misconduct allegations can result in dire career consequences.
Penalties range from fine to firing
The possible penalties a worker can receive for violating the Hatch Act runs the gamut. At the very least, someone found guilty by the Merit Systems Protection Board could receive a letter of reprimand or a fine. At worst, a worker could be barred from working for the government for a period of up to five years.
While the OSC takes the job of policing employee political activity seriously, it exercises a certain measure of prosecutorial discretion. So, for example, one recent alleged violation of the Hatch Act by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley resulted in no penalty to her, while another case could see a government doctor being suspended from his job or debarred.
In the latter case, the Veterans Administration doctor is alleged to have run for the U.S. Senate in 2014. In addition to that, the OSC alleges the doctor further violated the act by actively campaigning while at work, including distributing business cards featuring the VA seal. The case is now before the MSPB.
Clearly, government workers need to be aware of the restrictions they face under the law. The OSC website offers information in that regard. If a case results in prosecution, employees will need to speak with an attorney to understand their rights and options.