Federal employees are required to keep partisan political activities off the clock.
Tweeters, beware — especially if you earn your paycheck on the taxpayer dime.
A District resident who posted dozens of tweets asking his followers to donate to a D.C. Council member while he was on the clock as a federal government employee is being cited as an example of what federal workers cannot do on social media when it comes to partisan politics.
According to the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, the employee used his Twitter account to promote D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). At the time, McDuffie was running in a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Council member Harry Thomas, Jr. Examples of the tweets include this one: "you don't have to live in ward5 to help put KenyanforWard5 over $10K tonight -- only $275 away. please help."
OSC reported earlier this week that those tweets violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that limits when and how federal government employees can engage in partisan political activities.
Possible penalties for violations of the Hatch Act include dismissal, demotion, suspension, and a fine of up to $1,000. The Office of the Special Counsel says in a statement that it had intended to pursue the case, but the employee resigned his position in January to take another job.
OSC says it is highlighting the case to better inform federal employees about what to be wary of ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, according to Adam Miles, a spokesman for the agency. The era of social media has expanded the scope of what federal employees can and cannot do — and this may be the first Hatch Act case of its kind, Miles said.
The case “shows the shifting way people use technology" and how enforcement of the Hatch Act is evolving, he said, adding that his office has already pursued cases involving federal government email accounts. Earlier this week the Office informed that it had suspended a U.S. Navy employee in Rhode Island for sending emails advocating against President Obama’s 2012 re-election while on duty.
OSC did not name the employee or list his Twitter account in its statement, but Nextgov, which first reported on the story, linked two of the offending tweets to the @IMGoph account.
WAMU identified the employee as Geoffrey Hatchard, a D.C. resident who worked for the U.S. Census. In a comment, he said that he hopes his case helps make clear what the rules are for other federal workers who use social media.
"Ironically, I received Hatch Act training the day after speaking with OSC about this. I suppose I could have been docked a couple days without pay had they decided to pursue this. The good thing about this is it really helps clarify the limits on social media for all federal employees," he said.
An employee guide from the Office states: "Federal employees are prohibited from advocating for or against a political party, partisan political group, or candidate for partisan public office through a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform while they are on duty or in the federal workplace. However, doing so off duty and away from the federal workplace would not violate the Hatch Act."
For Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, former associate counsel to President George W. Bush and expert on the Hatch Act, social media is a new challenge to the Hatch Act, which dates back to 1939.
"Twitter is a huge problem," he says. Not only do federal employees cross the line by tweeting or posting political updates while at work, but they also create confusion when they include their official titles on personal social media accounts. And even if a name or title are not directly displayed — the employee cited did not tweet under his name, nor did he post his job title on his account — it can toe the line between what's allowed and what's not.
Generally, Painter says, federal government employees should just shy away from partisan messages while they're at work. "If you're on the clock or in the building, you can't do it," he says.
Additionally, raising money for candidates is a red flag. "[OSC] really doesn't like that," he says. Miles said that the ban on soliciting contributions applies whether or not the employee is on duty. In the case of the employee tweeting support for McDuffie, a tweet soliciting funds was posted at 12:23 a.m., yet still violated the provisions of the Hatch Act dealing with fundraising activities.
Disclosure: The reporter of this story is an acquaintance of the former federal government employee.