Watchdog: Office of Special Counsel looking into alleged DeVos Hatch Act violation

Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos | Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A watchdog group recently filed a complaint against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, alleging she violated the Hatch Act when she criticized Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in a Sept. 1 interview on Fox News.

Now the Checks and Balances Project (C&BP) says the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is investigating DeVos’ actions. Scott Peterson, executive director of the C&BP, says an attorney within the office’s Hatch Act Unit told him they received his complaint and were looking into it, as Politico first reported. C&BP bills itself as an investigative blog created to address declines in investigative reporting.

The Hatch Act, a 1939 federal law, forbids federal employees and civil service workers from engaging in political campaigning while on duty, driving a government car, wearing an official uniform or using a government building or room. 

Biden opposes DeVos’ school choice policies and has said he’d revoke them if elected president. DeVos, a West Michigan native who had been a prominent GOP donor, has long supported using public education funding for private, charter or home schools and has funded several school choice efforts in Michigan and nationwide.

During the interview, DeVos commented on Biden’s policies, saying he advocated for allowing school choice back in the late 1990s. 

“Today he’s turned his back on the kids that we’re talking about and he’s turned his face in favor of the teachers union and what they have to say and what they have to demand and it’s really shameful,” DeVos said.

The Education Department later sent out an email titled, “Important Updates from U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos” that linked to the Fox News interview. DeVos’ commentary on Biden was included. She later tweeted out a link to the video.

In his complaint, Peterson said these actions are each “unique violations” of the Hatch Act that can interfere with or affect the results of an election.

But Angela Morabito, a press secretary for the Education Department, pushed back on the idea that what DeVos said constituted a Hatch violation.

“Not every allegation is based in fact; this is a classic example. The secretary was asked to respond to oft-repeated criticism of her and her policies, and she defended her policies, including discussing the history of that criticism,” Morabito said in a statement. “The Hatch Act does not prohibit that kind of exchange with a journalist. Case closed.”

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Morabito said the Education Department will cooperate with the OSC if it opens up an investigation of the “frivolous complaint.”

An OSC spokesperson told Politico that the office “generally cannot comment on or confirm the status of Hatch Act investigations.”

DeVos is one of two high-ranking members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet to be accused of violating the Hatch Act. 

The first was Kellyanne Conway, a former senior adviser to the president. In June 2019, the OSC recommended Conway’s removal from federal service after finding she had, on numerous occasions, disparaged Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official role. 

Trump did not fire her. Last month, Conway announced she would leave her post due to ongoing family issues.