They violated the Hatch Act

June 21, 2013
By: Charles Lamberton

That’s what we told Connor Adams Sheets of the International Business Times who interviewed us for his recent exclusive report on the politically charged, anti-Obama, anti-Democrat emails exchanged among several federal employees during work hours and using federal computer systems.  As Connor reported today:

A group of employees at Cincinnati’s beleaguered Internal Revenue Service field office used IRS computers and email accounts to exchange dozens of emails during the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election among a group of friends and colleagues dubbed the “Neanderthals,” discussing national politics in a manner that two employment lawyers say likely violated federal law.

And certain decisions about who to promote within the office were decided in part based on considerations of employees’ political leanings, according to a longtime Cincinnati IRS field-office employee who declined to be identified but provided the internal emails to International Business Times.

The 80 politically charged emails were sent among members of a group of more than 20 people, including at least eight employees of the Cincinnati IRS field office’s Employee Plans Office, part of the Tax Exempt & Government Entities Division there, which is already embroiled in a national scandal over its targeting of conservative groups for added scrutiny in the run-up to the 2012 election. The discussions amount to “overt political activity that violated the Hatch Act,” according to Charles Lamberton, president and principal of Pittsburgh’s Lamberton Law Firm LLC, which specializes in employee and workplace law.

Hatch Act is shorthand for An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, a law enacted in 1939 and most recently amended in 2012 that aims to keep political activity out of federal, state and local government workplaces.

The law specifically states, “Less restricted federal employees [a group that includes IRS employees] may not engage in political activity — i.e., activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group — while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or using any federally owned or leased vehicle.”

It goes on to outline examples of activities prohibited under that provision, including the use of “any email account or 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,” a restriction Lamberton believes the Neanderthals clearly violated.

“I don’t know how you look at emails of this sort and not determine on its face that there was overt political activity that violates the Hatch Act,” Lamberton said. “What is the essential [tenor] of the communication? If it’s just expressing an opinion, that’s okay, but when it crosses over into something that is advocating in favor of one and against another — that ‘against another’ really is key — that becomes a problem…. If it starts to now compare and contrast between the performance of one candidate and the performance of another, and takes positions in favor of one and against another, now that’s political activity, and that can be very problematic for the employee who engaged in it.”