Government watchdog calls for Kellyanne Conway to be removed from office for violating the Hatch Act

The top aide to President Donald Trump has previously said the law prohibiting White House employees from engaging in certain political activities would not "silence" her.
Image: Kellyanne Conway speaks to reporters at the White House in Washington
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has dismissed concerns that she has violated a federal law banning government employees from engaging in certain political activity. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

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By Dartunorro Clark

A government watchdog agency recommended Thursday that Kellyanne Conway, a top aide to President Donald Trump, be removed from federal office for repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in certain political activity.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that enforces the act, said it sent a report to Trump detailing "numerous occasions" in which Conway violated the law by saying disparaging things about Democratic presidential candidates in television interviews and on social media while acting in her official capacity as counselor to the president.

The act provides an exception for the president and vice president, but not employees of the White House, the agency said in a statement.

"Ms. Conway's violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act's restrictions. Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law," the agency added.

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The OSC ruled in March 2018 that Conway violated the Hatch Act in 2017 when she expressed support for GOP candidate Roy Moore, and against Democratic candidate Doug Jones, in Alabama's special Senate election.

In November, the agency also found that six Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act after they tweeted support for Republicans or Trump from their government accounts, but declined to recommend disciplinary action.

Last month, Conway went after former Vice President Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential campaign and mocked the Hatch Act after a reporter told her that her comments could violate the law.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said after a reporter recounted the OSC’s past findings.

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“If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work,” Conway added. “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”

The agency said that Trump has the authority to punish Conway for violating the act, calling her a "repeat offender."

Steven Groves, the White House deputy press secretary, slammed the decision and indicated that Conway would not face disciplinary action.

“The Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) unprecedented actions against Kellyanne Conway are deeply flawed and violate her constitutional rights to free speech and due process. Others, of all political views, have objected to the OSC’s unclear and unevenly applied rules which have a chilling effect on free speech for all federal employees," he said.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone also excoriated the agency in an 11-page letter Thursday, calling it a “draconian and patently ridiculous recommendation that the President remove one of his closest advisers." He also questioned the watchdog's impartiality and demanded that the OSC withdraw its 17-page report until Conway has a reasonable time to respond to allegations. The OSC report, he said, cited over a dozen allegations spanning eight months and contained "numerous errors."

Cipollone said the administration received the report Wednesday night and was asked to respond by Thursday morning and as such "violated Ms. Conway's due process rights" and abused its statutory authority.

"If you choose not to withdraw the report we will need additional information to prepare our full response," he said.

Cipollone also wrote that the agency never cited any official complaints it received for each allegation in the report. He argued that the office was guided by “external influences,” such as public reaction and press inquiries after Conway mocked the Hatch Act in May.

Following the release of the report, House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., also called for Conway to step down and said the committee will hold a hearing with the OSC on June 26. Cummings said he will invite Conway to the hearing.

“Complying with the law is not optional. President Trump should terminate Ms. Conway’s employment immediately in light of these dozens of violations of federal law," Cummings said in a statement. "Allowing Ms. Conway to continue her position of trust at the White House would demonstrate that the President is not interested in following the law — or requiring his closest aides to do so."

Conway has not directly responded to the report or Cummings' invitation.

Henry Kerner, who was tapped by Trump in 2017 to head the OSC, told Fox News in an interview Thursday that he has "no animus" toward Conway, but defended the decision, saying his office is “completely nonpartisan and nonpolitical” and the report is “nonpartisan.”

“I am a Trump appointee. I have no animus toward Kellyanne whatsoever,” Kerner said. “My job is to make sure the federal workforce stay as depoliticized and as fair as possible.”

Kerner stood by the recommendation to remove Conway from government service.

“If she is going to violate the law and make fun of that fact ... how is the Hatch Act going to impose any discipline for [other federal employees]?” he asked.

Any decisions on how to deal with the office's recommendation would be up to Trump, he added.

“We respect his decision and, of course, the president has any option he’d like — to reprimand or not to reprimand,” Kerner said. “It is up to the president’s discretion, and we respect that.”