Ethics group files Hatch Act complaint against WH Press Secretary Psaki

A government watchdog group filed a complaint Friday accusing White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki of violating the federal Hatch Act by praising Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe during her regular briefing Thursday.

The complaint from Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW) to the Office of Special Counsel alleged that Psaki had improperly used her office to affect the outcome of next month’s election.

Psaki had been asked whether the Biden administration considered McAuliffe’s race against Republican Glenn Youngkin to be a “bellwether” ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“Well, I have to be a little careful about how much political analysis I do from here,” Psaki began before saying that President Biden “of course wants former Gov. McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia. There is alignment on a lot of their agenda, whether it is the need to invest in rebuilding our roads, rails, and bridges, or making it easier for women to rejoin the workforce.”

“We’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing,” Psaki concluded.

The CREW complaint accuses the press secretary of “impermissibly mixing official government business with advocacy for former Governor McAuliffe’s election.”

“[W]hile Ms. Psaki did not explicitly urge voting for Governor McAuliffe, her statements appear to have been aimed at his success in a partisan political election,” read the document.

It was signed by CREW President Noah Bookbinder and urged the Office of Special Counsel to “commence an immediate investigation into the conduct described in this letter and take any appropriate disciplinary action against Ms. Psaki.”

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Psaki responded to the complaint in an appearance on CNN Friday afternoon, telling host Jake Tapper: “I take ethics seriously. So does this president, of course. As I understand it, if I had said ‘he’ instead of ‘we,’ that would not have been an issue at all, and I’ll be more careful with my words next time. Words certainly matter.”

“We appreciate Jen Psaki and the Biden administration reaffirming their commitment to ethics and to the law, something all too rare in recent years,” CREW tweeted in response to Psaki’s CNN appearance. “We look forward to a renewed commitment to compliance with the Hatch Act from the administration.”

Several executive branch officials have recently run afoul of the Hatch Act, which was enacted in 1939 and bars executive branch employees from using “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”

In March, the Office of Special Counsel issued a warning to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge after she told a reporter “I believe we [Democrats] can win the Senate race” to replace the retiring Rob Portman (R-Ohio) next year.

In June 2019, the Office of Special Counsel recommended that then-President Donald Trump fire top adviser Kellyanne Conway for having “violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.” Trump rebuffed that entreaty and Conway left the administration of her own accord in August of 2020.

In its statement Friday, CREW noted that it had complained of Hatch Act violations by at least a dozen Trump administration officials, including Conway and then-UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

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“The last administration systematically co-opted the government for the president’s reelection,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “While this conduct [by Psaki] does not come close to rising to the level of the outrageous offenses of the Trump administration, that does not mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law. The Biden administration should not follow the Trump administration down that path.”

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