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Pro-Obama speech ruled Hatch Act violation; Sebelius repays travel costs

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The White House stood by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius after federal investigators reported Wednesday that she unlawfully stumped for President Obama while delivering a speech earlier this year.

The Office of Special Counsel found Mrs. Sebelius violated the Hatch Act in February, when she told attendees at a Human Rights Campaign gala in North Carolina that re-electing Mr. Obama was "hugely important." The law prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity in their official capacity.

House Republicans urged Mr. Obama to take the matter seriously — and there were a few scattered calls for Mrs. Sebelius to resign — but White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Mrs. Sebelius already has taken appropriate steps to rectify the situation, pointing out that she paid for the trip herself after attention was drawn to the incident.

"This error was immediately acknowledged by the secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused," Mr. Schultz said. "This administration holds itself to the highest ethical standards, which is why President Obama has installed the toughest ethics rules of any administration in history."

In response to complaints, the OSC began investigating whether Mrs. Sebelius overstepped the boundaries.

"One of the imperatives is to make sure that we not only come here in Charlotte to present the nomination to the president, but we make sure that in November he continues to be president for another four years because this effort has just begun," Mrs. Sebelius said, according to the report.

"It's hugely important to make sure that we re-elect the president and elect a Democratic governor here in North Carolina," she said.

While the North Carolina trip was originally slated as official business, Mrs. Sebelius' staff admitted it was political in nature and said the secretary would personally pay for it — but only after her remarks attracted widespread attention.

The agency said Wednesday those actions solved the matter sufficiently.

"As was previously announced and at the direction of the secretary, the Department of Health and Human Services reclassified the event as political, and the U.S. Treasury was reimbursed for all travel expenses," an HHS spokesman said.

The OSC said its six-month investigation had turned up no other evidence that Mrs. Sebelius has made political statements in her official capacity.

But House Republicans were quick to react. Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, urged the president to decide on "appropriate consequences" for Mrs. Sebelius — but stopped short of asking her to resign.

"As he decides the appropriate consequences for Secretary Sebelius, the president should consider the important leadership role of Cabinet secretaries and the example they must set for the entire executive branch," Mr. Issa said.

The Catholic Association, which has blasted the administration over its mandate for employers to pay for contraception, went further and called on Mrs. Sebelius to resign, saying she's not equipped to properly implement the new health care law.

"In violating the Hatch Act, Secretary Sebelius has made it clear that her concern with the re-election of President Obama supersedes her professional integrity, and she cannot be trusted to implement Obamacare, given her partisan political nature," said Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow.

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