Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra violated the Hatch Act by using his official authority or influence to affect the result of an election while speaking at a public event last year, a U.S. government watchdog said on Tuesday.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel reported Becerra “crossed the line” at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Annual Awards Gala dinner in September when he conveyed his support for Democratic California Senator Alex Padilla’s re-election in a 2022 U.S. Senate race.
“Not only did Secretary Becerra express pride at having Senator Padilla as his Senator, he referred to him as “someone [he] will be voting for in a little bit more than a month….,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said in a letter to President Joe Biden, who appointed Becerra as the HHS Secretary for the Executive branch in March 2021.
According to the watchdog analysis, Becerra is subject to the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activity of “any individual, other than the President and the Vice President, employed or holding office in… an Executive agency other than the Government Accountability Office.”
Kerner said Becerra “impermissibly mixed his personal electoral preference with official remarks.”
“Violations by high level officials that go unaddressed particularly undermine the viability of the Hatch Act and its purpose of ensuring a federal civil service free of partisan political influence,” Kerner wrote.
Becerra acknowledged his comments but said they were unintentional.
“While I did not realize at the time that my off-the-cuff remarks concerning my personal voting intentions were in violation of the Hatch Act, I now understand why they were not permitted,” he said in a statement attached to the report. “I have received additional counseling on the Hatch Act from the Department’s Ethics Division, and I will work hard to ensure that there are no future violations.”
Although the Office of the Special Counsel can recommend a president take appropriate actions about the violation, the independent agency does not have the authority to enforce such decisions.
Last year, the agency found that Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm violated the Hatch Act over comments she made during an interview with Marie Claire magazine, where she promoted electoral success for the Democratic Party.
Officials let Granholm off with a warning, citing she had not received proper training about the law.
According to The Washington Post, the office cited 13 senior officials for former Republican President Donald Trump for illegally mixing governing with campaigning before the 2020 election.
Newsmax reported the office called for Kellyanne Conway to be removed from office.
Representatives for the Biden Administration have yet to comment on the Becerra report.