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NPR 2018-12-03

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Ethics Agency Warns Federal Workers Not To Discuss Impeachment Or 'Resistance'

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Prospective candidates aren't the only ones laying plans for the 2020 presidential election. A federal agency has declared it's already campaign season, and government workers and the bureaucracy need to watch out for what they say, particularly when it comes to their views of President Trump. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Be really careful if you talk about impeachment or the, quote, unquote, "resistance" or, the memo says, strong criticism or praise of a presidential administration's policies and actions. This is the guidance from the federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act, a 79-year-old law meant to keep partisan political work out of the federal workplace. A guidance memo leaked out yesterday in Washington declaring the 2020 presidential campaign season has already begun. Blowback was severe, and the agency tried to clarify the policy today. Debra Katz is a Washington, D.C., lawyer who handles employment and whistleblower cases.

DEBRA KATZ: There will be lawsuits filed as a result of this memorandum because it is so chilling to the free speech rights of workers in the federal sector.

OVERBY: To start with, she said the guidance is lopsided.

KATZ: While this guidance says that there may be words that Republicans would use to oppose other candidates, the fact of the matter is there is only one presidential candidate that has declared, and that's President Trump.

OVERBY: And she said the guidance is much too broad in the way it defines things. The guidance comes from the Office of Special Counsel or OSC. It's not the office of special counsel Robert Mueller. The chief of OSC's Hatch Act unit spoke with NPR yesterday. She declined to talk on tape, but she said the guidance wasn't intended to be more stringent than what was issued in previous campaigns. And, yes, people do get in trouble for violating the Hatch Act - for instance, this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Doug Jones in Alabama - folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts.

OVERBY: Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway outside the White House a year ago - she was telling Alabama viewers of "Fox & Friends" why they should support Republican Roy Moore in a Senate special election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONWAY: I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.

OVERBY: OSC said that violated the Hatch Act. It sent a report to President Trump. If Conway was a regular civil servant, she could have been fired. At the American Federation of Government Employees, deputy general counsel Ward Morrow said the guidance would have trouble keeping people away from a subject as hot as impeachment. And Austin Evers, director of the liberal watchdog group American Oversight, said some of OSC's clarifications simply don't make sense.

AUSTIN EVERS: Any public employee who tries to parse what they are allowed to do based on what they've been told over the last three days would conclude that the safest course of action is to keep their mouth shut.

OVERBY: Evers pointed to the guidance on talking about impeachment. It says federal workers can express opinions on whether Trump should be impeached, but they cannot advocate for or against his impeachment. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.


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