Special Counsel: Perdue violated Hatch Act at Farmers to Families food box event
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue violated the Hatch Act at an Aug. 24 Farmers to Families Food Box program in Mills River, N.C., and told him he had to reimburse the government for the costs of what appeared to be a campaign event.
The Office of the Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, issued the reprimand following a complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a letter sent to the USDA Ethics Office by six House members, led by House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations Subcommittee Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.
In letters to the citizens group and to Fudge, Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the OSC Hatch Act Unit, wrote, “Taken as a whole, Secretary Perdue’s comments during the Aug. 24 event encouraged those present, and those watching remotely, to vote for President Trump’s reelection.”
Perdue appeared at the event in a produce packing center along with President Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who is also a White House aide. The event took place the same day the Republican National Convention nominated Trump for a second term.
“His first words were not about USDA, but about the president’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns,” Galindo-Marrone wrote.
“Even in an administration that has racked up a record number of Hatch Act violations, it is still shocking to see a Cabinet secretary violate the law in such an egregious manner,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder.
“Misusing the federal government to help keep the president in power seriously undermines democracy. This administration has shown its lack of concern about these anti-democratic abuses, but it’s a good thing the Office of Special Counsel still values upholding this important law.”
The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from “us[ing their] official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election,” Bookbinder noted.
“Political activity” is defined as “an activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group,” he added.
“Frankly, we expect more from a Cabinet secretary, particularly one who has spent so many years in the government,” said Bookbinder. “This was one of the most shameless examples of the Trump administration’s escalating abuse of taxpayer resources to try to re-elect the most corrupt president in history.”
Fudge, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Alma Adams, D-N.C., who had written the letter to the USDA Ethics Office, also slammed Perdue in a statement.
“Government officials in appointed, cabinet-level positions like Secretary Perdue should know better than to abuse their official capacity at the expense of American taxpayers,” the members wrote.
“Yet as the Office of Special Counsel has confirmed, that is exactly what Secretary Perdue did when he made political statements in support of President Trump’s re-election at an official government event.
“Time and again, Secretary Perdue and this administration have shown blatant disregard for the rule of law and the code of ethics that ensure public trust in their government.
“In this instance, the secretary used his official position to engage in partisan electioneering at an event for a program that is meant to help feed hungry Americans. The administration is also requiring millions of food boxes delivered by that very same program to include a letter signed-by the president just weeks ahead of the November election. The intent to use emergency pandemic assistance to sway voters is not lost on anyone.
“Politics has no place in the USDA’s official operations, especially during a time of such great need. We are glad to see the special counsel has taken steps to hold Secretary Perdue accountable.
“Before engaging in this sort of illegal, inappropriate, and disgraceful behavior in the future, the secretary should keep in mind his primary duty is to execute USDA’s stated mission to ‘Do right and feed everyone.’”
As OSC noted, USDA attempted to defend Perdue by saying “At no point did the secretary encourage or direct the crowd to vote for the president.”
Perdue’s press office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. ❖