According to a letter sent by Henry Kerner of the United States Office of Special Counsel to President Joe Biden on Tuesday, when Department of Health and Human Services Sec. Xavier Becerra attended the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Annual Awards Gala and expressed his support for California Sen. Alex Padilla’s reelection in September 2022 in his official capacity as a public servant, he violated the Hatch Act.
Becerra was awarded the American Dream Medallion Award 2022 at the gala. His prepared remarks on his acceptance focused on HHS’s work and that of the Biden-Harris administration. They had been approved and reviewed in advance by an HHS Ethics Division lawyer. Becerra then added:
“To my brother, my friend, and Senator, and someone I will be voting for in a little bit more than a month, Alex Padilla, thank you so much, Senator, for being there for all of us. We are proud to have you as our Senator.”
According to an investigative report accompanying the letter, Becerra’s staff were recording the speech and one can be heard saying, “No, no, you can’t say that.”
The OSC report is a good resource for those who may need to refresh their memory on the Hatch Act, and how it applies here:
The Hatch Act forbids federal employees to use their official authority or influence in order to influence the outcome of an election. Secretary Becerra’s speech was a mix-up of his personal and official views. Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from expressing their support for candidates in their official capacity.
Becerra’s familiarity with the Hatch Act is not a mystery. Becerra was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives between 1993 and 2017 when he became California Attorney General following Kamala Harris’ election to the U.S. Senate. Becerra was appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services by Joe Biden when he took office. He did this to reward Becerra’s endless lawsuits against the Trump Administration. He’s now been under Hatch Act restrictions for more than 25 years. Becerra, like other California Democrats, is used to seeing people look the other way, and accept that they will not be held accountable for the laws they expect other people to follow.
Becerra may have felt that ethics laws don’t matter after the House Ethics Committee ignored the fact that Karen Bass, Becerra’s former colleague (and current Los Angeles mayor) received a scholarship created by the University of Southern California just for her.
Here’s Becerra explaining the incident from the Office of the Special Counsel report:
During OSC’s investigation, Secretary Becerra answered questions about his remarks at the Gala. He explained that his remarks were made “off the cuff”, and he did not plan to make them until he got to the podium. He explained that his remarks were a reflection of his “longstanding relationship” with Senator Padilla. He said that he was proud of Alex Padilla’s accomplishments, and expressed this from the perspective of someone who had witnessed them.
The OSC didn’t like that answer. The report states:
Secretary Becerra went over the line when he expressed his support for Senator Padilla. Secretary Becerra not only expressed his pride in having Senator Padilla serve as his Senator but also referred to him “as someone [he] would be voting for in just a few more days ….”.
Becerra also should have been aware that the Hatch Act prevented him from publicly expressing his support for Padilla’s election. He has received extensive training in the Hatch Act since joining HHS. This included a presentation by the White House Counsel’s Office three months prior to the Gala. The statement was so alarming that one of his staff members, who attended the Gala, immediately gasped, and said “You can’t say that”.
OSC also considered Secretary Becerra’s explanations of why he made those remarks. As Secretary Becerra was well-informed of the Hatch Act prohibitions, he should have been aware that his “longstanding relationship” with Senator Padilla didn’t exempt him from Act’s ban on expressing his partisan support in an official address, even if it were extemporaneous. This belief that his stated intention to vote in favor of Senator Padilla is merely a statement made by a “responsible” citizen is also belied by his speech, which was clearly delivered as HHS Secretary. Sec. Becerra’s explanations are not sufficient to justify the release of this report to the president.
Kerner warned Biden in the letter that accompanied the report:
This report is an excellent opportunity to discourage violations of the Hatch Act by reminding all federal employees about its restrictions.
Becerra claims he has received additional training on the Hatch Act. The 28th try might be the charm.