I just spoke on the BBC where the anchor was pursuing the question of “whether the FBI broke the law” by informing Congress of the reopening of the investigation into the emails. The allegation came from Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid on Sunday. However, with all due respect to our esteemed GW graduate (and I really do respect Sen. Reid), his allegation is in my view wildly misplaced. Reid is arguing that the actions of FBI Director James B. Comey violates the Hatch Act. I cannot see a plausible, let alone compelling, basis for such a charge against Comey.
In his letter to Comey, Reid raised the the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan politicking by government employees.
5 U.S.C. § 7323(a)(1) prohibits a government employee from “us[ing] his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”
“Your actions in recent months have demonstrated a disturbing double standard for the treatment of sensitive information, with what appears to be a clear intent to aid one political party over another. I am writing to inform you that my office has determined that these actions may violate the Hatch Act, which bars FBI officials from using their official authority to influence an election. Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law.”
The reference to “months” is curious. Comey has kept Congress informed in compliance with oversight functions of the congressional committees but has been circumspect in the extent of such disclosures. It is troubling to see Democrats (who historically favor both transparency and checks on executive powers) argue against such disclosure and cooperation with oversight committees. More importantly, the Hatch Act is simply a dog that will not hunt.
Richard W. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House from 2005 to 2007, has filed a Hatch Act complaint against Comey with the federal Office of Special Counsel and Office of Government Ethics. He argues that “We cannot allow F.B.I. or Justice Department officials to unnecessarily publicize pending investigations concerning candidates of either party while an election is underway.”
However, Comey was between the horns of a dilemma. He could be accused of acts of commission in making the disclosure or omission in withholding the disclosure in an election year. Quite frankly, I found Painter’s justification for his filing remarkably speculative. He admits that he has no evidence to suggest that Comey wants to influence the election or favors either candidate. Intent is key under the Hatch investigations. You can disagree with the timing of Comey’s disclosure, but that is not a matter for the Hatch Act or even an ethical charge in my view.
Congress passed the Hatch Act in response to scandals during the 1938 congressional elections and intended the Act to bar federal employees from using “[their] official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.” Comey is not doing that in communicating with Congress on a matter of oversight.
Such violations under the Hatch Act, even if proven, are not criminal matters. The Office of Special Counsel -can investigate such matters and seek discipline — a matter than can ultimately go before the Merit Systems Protection Board.
That does not mean that there is not a policy against statements or actions influencing elections. Comey issued a memo in March 2016 reminding that employees “should be particularly mindful of these rules in an election year,” and defining prohibited political activity to include all “activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group.”