The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) confirmed that Sonny Perdue, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, violated the Hatch Act by making political statements promoting President Donald Trump’s re-election at an official government event on Aug. 24, 2020. The counsel is requiring the U.S. Department of Treasury to be reimbursed for the costs associated with the event.
The Hatch Act restricts certain political activities of federal executive branch employees, except for the president and the vice president. As the secretary of agriculture, Perdue is covered by the Hatch Act and prohibited from, among other things, using his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election. Under this provision, Perdue may not use his official title while engaging in political activity or his official position to advance or oppose candidates for partisan political office. Political activity is defined as activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, partisan political group or candidate for a partisan political office.
The OSC report stated: “Taken as a whole, Secretary Perdue’s comments during the Aug. 24 event encouraged those present, and those watching remotely, to vote for President Trump’s re-election. His first words were not about USDA but about the President’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Secretary Perdue described why those in Mills River [N.C.] voted for the President in 2016 and gave them a reason to vote for him again in 2020 — because under a Trump Administration, they will not be ‘forgotten.’ He then used this campaign pledge to segue into a discussion about the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a program in which many of those in the audience had a vested interest. Secretary Perdue described President Trump’s recent action to bolster the program and said, ‘That’s what’s going to continue to happen — four more years — if America gets out and votes for this man, Donald J. Trump.’ In doing so, he described a program over which he had authority, one that positively affected those present, and stated that the program would continue if President Trump were re-elected.”
The justifications USDA offered in Perdue’s defense only reinforce the conclusion that he violated the Hatch Act, OSC stated, adding, “Those justifications included that he ‘predicted who else might support the President [in his re-election] because of his policy priorities and accomplishments’ and ‘observed that, if given the opportunity, the President would be able to advance his policy agenda of helping farmers and families in need for four additional years.’ But, those are precisely the sorts of statements that courts have found are intended to encourage supporters to vote for a particular candidate.”
Reps. Marcia L. Fudge (D., Ohio), chair of the House agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, oversight and department operations; Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.); Barbara Lee (D., Cal.); Jim McGovern (D., Mass.); Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) and Alma Adams (D., N.C.) slammed Perdue for his actions, sounding the alarm in an Aug. 28 letter to OSC.
The letter follows the filing of a complaint on Aug. 26, 2020, by Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington, D.C., requesting that the U.S. Special Counsel investigate whether the secretary’s actions constitute a violation of the Hatch Act.
It also follows an Aug. 14, 2020, letter to USDA led by Fudge expressing concerns about the agency's plans to include a letter signed by the President in food boxes distributed through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
“Government officials in appointed, Cabinet-level positions like Secretary Perdue should know better than to abuse their official capacity at the expense of American taxpayers. Yet, as the Office of Special Counsel has confirmed, that is exactly what Secretary Perdue did when he made political statements in support of President Trump’s re-election at an official government event,” the House members said.
“Politics has no place in the USDA’s official operations, especially during a time of such great need," they added. "We are glad to see the Special Counsel has taken steps to hold Secretary Perdue accountable. Before engaging in this sort of illegal, inappropriate and disgraceful behavior in the future, the secretary should keep in mind his primary duty is to execute USDA’s stated mission to ‘Do right and feed everyone.’”
Patty Judge, Focus on Rural America co-founder and former lieutenant governor of Iowa, said "Perdue should absolutely pay back the taxpayers, but he should also just plain know better.
"If the President had simply had a plan and kept his promises, he wouldn't be asking a Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary to muddy the lines between official business and election-eve stunts. Rural voters deserve better than this,” Judge concluded.