WASHINGTON — The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has wrapped up its investigation of FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly's statements at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23, and concluded he violated the Hatch Act prohibition on certain political activities by federal branch employees.
He was issued a warning letter that a repeat of such statements could incur more than a warning.
“I appreciate that OSC recognized that the statement in question was part of an off-the-cuff, unrehearsed response to an impromptu question, and that they found this resolution to be the appropriate consequence," said O'Rielly of the warning. "While I am disappointed and disagree that my offhand remark was determined to be a violation, I take their warning letter seriously.”
Asked at CPAC panel session how to avoid the regulatory issue ping pong of changing administrations, O'Rielly said: "I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, the Senate, and make sure that President Trump gets reelected."
O'Rielly told the special counsel that he was not advocating for the President's election but had, in trying to answer a question off the cuff, meant "to relay the point that the only way to retain that current outcome was to maintain the current leaders in
government. In other words, retaining the current Administration is the only sure way to prevent regulatory ping-ponging.”
Regardless of the explanation, said Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of the Hatch Act Unit, O'Rielly did advocate for reelection of President Trump.
Democratic legislators had also expressed concerns about O'Rielly's comments as well as the appearance of the other Republican commissioners at the CPAC event, including chairman Ajit Pai. But FCC General Counsel Tom Johnson had said there was nothing ethically questionable, at least about their appearance at the event.
OSC advised O'Rielly in the warning that "if in the future he engages in prohibited political activity while employed in a position covered by the Hatch Act, we will consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 1215."
The Project on Government Oversight had filed the complaint against O'Rielly and called for the investigation.
“I’m encouraged to see the Office of Special Counsel continue to take Hatch Act complaints seriously. The Hatch Act contains important provisions to keep partisan politics out of the executive branch, and enforcing it is in the best interest of each American citizen,” said Liz Hempowicz, POGO’s director of public policy, in a statement.
“Federal employees, while on the clock in their official roles, are acting on the taxpayer’s dime. They shouldn’t be using their time—and therefore, taxpayer dollars—to advance anyone’s partisan agenda,” said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. “We need to be able to trust our government to act in the public interest, not partisan interests.”