- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

D.C. schoolteachers are the only ones in the country barred by federal law from seeking public office because of what some officials call a "clerical error."

It's an error that is likely to cost Tom Briggs his job.

The Dunbar Senior High School teacher learned last month that the federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) had ordered D.C. public schools to fire him within 30 days because he ran for a seat on the D.C. Council in 2000.

"As far as I'm concerned, I've done nothing wrong, and I should not be removed," Mr. Briggs, 41, told The Washington Times.

He lost his bid for the Ward 2 council seat after running as the D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate against Democratic incumbent Jack Evans.

"What is it about D.C. teachers that makes them special that they wouldn't be exempt from this law like all other teachers?" he asked.

The Hatch Act, enacted in 1940, prohibited partisan candidacies by those whose jobs were funded entirely or in part by the federal government. The law was amended in 1942 to exempt all teachers, including those in the District. But subsequent amendments excluded D.C. teachers from the exemption.

"It is the law, and we're supposed to enforce the law so we're going to enforce it," said OSC spokeswoman Jane McFarland, adding that her agency is determining which action to take if D.C. public school officials do not comply with the order to fire Mr. Briggs.

James Baxley, deputy special counsel for the D.C. public schools, said the system is obligated to follow the mandates of the federal government "typically by means of a notice of termination letter."

In 1993, Congress enacted a Hatch Act reform package that kept the nationwide exemption of schoolteachers but excluded D.C. teachers.

"It appears to have been the result of a drafting or clerical error," said one federal official who worked on the House Government Affairs Committee that wrote the amended legislation.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting member of Congress, says the exclusion of D.C. teachers from exemption is no error but a deliberate snubbing.

Norton spokeswoman Doxie A. McCoy said the Democratic congresswoman fought unsuccessfully to rescind the exclusion during debate over the 1993 reform package.

According to the Congressional Record, Mrs. Norton sought to exempt all D.C. government workers from the Hatch Act. Her measure, which included city teachers, was defeated by the Senate.

Mr. Briggs said he was told by the OSC early in the 2000 council race that if he didn't drop out, he risked getting fired.

"When I first announced my candidacy, I didn't think I was in violation of the Hatch Act," Mr. Briggs said. When he found out he was in violation, he said, he wanted to present himself in a way that his history students would respect.

"For me to back out of the race would have been a bad example to my students, who are also D.C. residents and who live in this city without any voting rights in Congress," Mr. Briggs said. "The Hatch Act is a federal law, and we don't have a vote in the lawmaking body that passes federal laws. Yet the only teachers in the country who are affected by the law are in D.C."

Mr. Briggs' attorney, Matthew Yeo, said, "It is interesting that the OSC feels so compelled to bring this case on Tom Briggs when they themselves know that the provision of not exempting D.C. teachers is probably just a mistake."

Mr. Yeo said he will file an appeal in federal court to overturn the OSC's action against Mr. Briggs. But it may be too late.

"My students already know I'm supposed to be removed by April 23," said Mr. Briggs, who doesn't have a new job lined up. "Dunbar is already short one social-studies teacher. For the government to believe that it's a good thing to remove a teacher with a good career from their job is ridiculous."

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