WASHINGTON – The Office of Special Counsel on Thursday recommended the removal of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway from federal office for violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity in the course of their work.
The report submitted to President Donald Trump found that Conway violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.” The agency described her as a “repeat offender.”
The decision about whether to remove Conway is up to Trump. The White House counsel immediately issued a letter calling for the agency to withdraw its recommendation that Conway be removed – a request the Office of Special Counsel declined.
In an interview, Special Counsel Henry Kerner called his recommendation that a political appointee of Conway's stature be fired “unprecedented.”
“You know what else is unprecedented?” said Kerner, a Trump appointee who has run the agency since December 2017. “Kellyanne Conway's behavior.”
“In interview after interview, she uses her official capacity to disparage announced candidates, which is not allowed,” he said, adding: “What kind of example does that send to the federal workforce? If you're high enough up in the White House, you can break the law, but if you're a postal carrier or a regular federal worker, you lose your job?”
Conway did not reply to a request for comment.
In the past, Trump has privately dismissed concerns about the Hatch Act, sympathizing with aides found to have violated it, according to current and former White House officials.
The White House on Thursday said the agency's assessment of Conway's actions was “deeply flawed” and violated “her constitutional rights to free speech and due process.”
Democratic lawmakers said the White House response sends the message that complying with the law is optional.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight committee, said he will hold a hearing this month with the Office of Special Counsel about its findings and seek Conway's participation.
In its 17-page report, the Office of Special Counsel found that Conway repeatedly attacked 2020 Democratic presidential candidates while she was being interviewed by media outlets in her official capacity and tweeted about the candidates from her official Twitter account.
“Her defiant attitude is inimical to the law, and her continued pattern of misconduct is unacceptable,” the agency wrote.
The Office of Special Counsel is a quasi-judicial independent agency that adjudicates claims of retaliation by whistleblowers and administers the Hatch Act and other civil service rules. It is a separate agency from the office run by now-former special counsel Robert Mueller, who led the investigation into Russian interference.
The agency can prosecute violations by civil servants, mostly though the Merit Systems Protection Board. That board imposes discipline against anywhere from six to a dozen civil servants a year for Hatch Act violations, which range from suspension without pay for 30 to 90 days to firing, Kerner said.
Since Trump took office, Conway has been reprimanded for numerous ethics violations.
In 2017, she was upbraided for touting the clothing line sold by Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump. The White House said Conway was “counseled” after that misstep, but no further disciplinary action was taken.
In 2018, Conway violated the Hatch Act on two occasions by making public comments supportive of one candidate and against another ahead of a special Senate election in Alabama. Conway has brushed off the findings.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Conway said last month when asked about the violations. “If you're trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it's not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
The reprimands of Conway are among a series of Hatch Act violations by Trump administration officials.
In late 2018, the Office of Special Counsel found six White House officials in violation of the law for using their official Twitter accounts to send or display political messages supporting Trump.
Others sanctioned by the Office of Special Counsel for political messages include former interior secretary Ryan Zinke; Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's spokeswoman; Dan Scavino, former White House social media director; and Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.