Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius violated federal law when she spoke before an LGBT audience about the need to elect Democratic officials at a Human Rights Campaign event, according to a report made public Thursday by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
The independent agency concluded Sebelius violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits civil servants from engaging in political activity, on Feb. 25 while speaking extemporaneously before an HRC campaign gala in Charlotte, N.C., although the Obama administration maintains any violation was corrected and the infraction was minor.
Sebelius used taxpayer funds to travel to an event in her official capacity, but reportedly veered from her prepared remarks and took a partisan tone, which was found to be in violation the Hatch Act. The report, dated Aug. 23, was delivered to President Obama.
According to the report, Sebelius’ calendar identified the event as official in nature. Online invitations referred to her in her official capacity as “Secretary Kathleen Sebelius” and “Secretary of DHHS Kathleen Sebelius.” A memo given to her suggested if she was asked about her personal views, she reply, “I’m here to represent the President and the Obama Administration, not in my personal capacity.”
During her speech, Sebelius talked as part of her prepared remarks about the Obama administration’s commitment to LGBT people — hitting on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, dropping defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court and what the Affordable Care Act means for LGBT Americans. All of these remarks were consistent with the Hatch Act.
But Sebelius deviated from her prepared remarks, making news in the LGBT press when she called for the defeat of Amendment One in North Carolina — a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that ultimately passed — about a month before the Obama campaign explicitly came out against the measure.
It’s these unscripted remarks that got Sebelius in trouble. She also advocated for the re-election of President Obama, saying “one of the imperatives is to make sure that we not only come together here in Charlotte to present the nomination to the president, but we make sure that in November he continues to be president for another four years.” She also called for the re-election of a Democratic governor in the state, saying, “it’s hugely important to make sure that we re-elect the president and elect a Democratic governor here in North Carolina.”
Following media inquiries about Sebelius’ speech, HHS issued a statement two days after the event saying the federal government wouldn’t pay for her trip and the department retroactively classified the event as political. HHS sought reimbursement from the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee for the costs of her travel. In testimony before OSC, Sebelius reportedly admitted her political remarks were a “mistake” and she “got a little caught up in the notion that the gains which had been made would clearly not continue without the president’s reelection.”
Still, OSC concluded Sebelius violated the law, stating, “These statements were made in Secretary Sebelius’ official capacity and therefore violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using official authority or influence to affect the results of an election.”
Responding to the report in a letter dated Sept. 7, Sebelius said OSC correctly notes that she acknowledged her political comments were a mistake, but said the agency should have concluded any violation of the Hatch Act was corrected. She also said she’s met with ethics attorneys for a greater understanding of what remarks are permissible in her official capacity.
“If there was a violation of the Hatch Act based on the use of my title, I believe the violation was technical and minor,” Sebelius said. “These are not the type of violations that the Hatch Act was intended to address.”
The investigation was initiated in March after a request by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the House Government & Oversight Reform Committee.
In a statement, Issa said he appreciated OSC’s “timely and thorough” investigation and is awaiting further action from Obama.
“OSC’s report and findings underscore the importance of laws prohibiting mixing official government business with partisan political activity,” Issa said. “OSC has sent its findings to President Obama, who must now decide on appropriate action. The Committee awaits President Obama’s decision. As he decides the appropriate consequences for Secretary Sebelius, the president should consider the important leadership role of Cabinet Secretaries and the example they must set for the entire Executive Branch.”
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesperson, said the issue was corrected even before the OSC report came out and maintained the Obama administration holds officials to the highest level of integrity.
“This error was immediately acknowledged by the Secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused,” Schultz said. “This administration holds itself to the highest ethical standards, which is why President Obama has installed the toughest ethics rules of any Administration in history — beginning on his first day in office when he signed an Executive Order instituting unprecedented reforms.”
Sebelius is no stranger to speaking to LGBT crowds to advocate for President Obama. In addition to speaking at the HRC event in Charlotte, Sebelius was at a D.C. fundraiser for LGBT people that both she and Obama attended. Sebelius also addressed members of the LGBT caucus last week at the Democratic National Convention.
The Human Rights Campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Sebelius’ apparent violation of federal campaign law at one of its events.
But Republican groups — including a gay conservative organization — took the report as an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration.
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, took aim at the Obama administration over the revelations in the report. His organization has endorsed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“It shouldn’t take congressional action to know that a speech given to a partisan political organization, like HRC, is a political speech,” LaSalvia said. “All of us taxpayers owe Chairman Issa a debt of gratitude for his vigilance in exposing Hatch Act violations by this administration.”
The Republican National Committee accused the Obama administration more broadly of drawing on federal funds to pay for campaign expenses. Republicans have previously criticized President Obama for traveling on government funds to events that are ostensibly for official business, but are located in swing states in the presidential election.
“The Obama administration promised to change Washington but time and again we have seen questionable activity from the administration using taxpayer dollars,” RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski said. “In fact, the questions about Secretary Sebelius pale in comparison to the White House’s blatant use of taxpayer dollars for campaign purposes.”