An Internal Revenue Service employee has been suspended for 100 days without pay for urging taxpayers to re-elect President Obama in 2012.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Thursday that it had recently resolved a complaint under the Hatch Act against the unnamed IRS employee. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from running as candidates in partisan elections and from soliciting contributions and promoting candidates for political office while on duty and in the workplace. The Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, is authorized to investigate allegations of Hatch Act violations.
The OSC said it entered into a settlement agreement last month with the IRS employee, who agreed to a 100-day unpaid suspension for violating the Hatch Act. The complaint alleged that, when fielding taxpayers’ questions on an IRS customer service help line, “the employee repeatedly urged taxpayers to reelect President Obama by delivering a chant based on the spelling of the employee’s last name.”
It was not clear from the announcement whether the employee’s name is similar to Obama’s, but an OSC spokesman confirmed that it was the employee’s name that was the basis of the chant. When the complaint first came to light in April, it was not clear whose last name was used (see IRS Employees Land in Trouble for Political Advocacy).
At that time, the OSC announced that it had investigated two other IRS employees. In one of those cases, a tax advisory specialist in Kentucky agreed to serve a 14-day suspension for telling a taxpayer during a recorded conversation that she was “for” the Democrats because “Republicans already [sic] trying to cap my pension and . . . they’re going to take women back 40 years.” She told the taxpayer that her mother had always told her, “If you vote for a Republican, the rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer.”
In a separate case, the OSC said it had received allegations that employees working in the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in Dallas violated the Hatch Act by wearing pro-Obama political stickers, buttons and clothing to work and displaying pro-Obama screensavers on their IRS computers. The OSC could not determine whether the materials were displayed prior to the November 2012 election or after the election. However, since the information that the OSC received alleged that these items were commonplace throughout the office, the OSC issued cautionary guidance to all IRS employees in the Dallas Taxpayer Assistance Center that they were not supposed to wear or display any items advocating for or against a political party, partisan political group, or partisan candidate in the workplace.
The IRS has come under fire in the past year for giving extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups and other conservative political organizations, along with some liberal groups, that applied for tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations. Lawmakers are continuing to probe the emails of the former director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations unit, Lois Lerner, who first revealed the practice in advance of the release of a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
Last month the IRS disclosed that two years’ worth of Lerner’s emails with people outside the IRS had disappeared after her laptop hard drive crashed in 2011 (see IRS Lost 2 Years of Lois Lerner's Emails with Outsiders). New emails unveiled this week by one of the congressional committee probing the scandal indicated that Lerner had asked IRS technology experts about whether instant messaging conversations within the IRS were being preserved. She learned that it was up to the individual to save the instant messaging conversations in a file or email as they are not saved automatically. She said in another email that she had cautioned other employees about what they say in emails, noting that Congress might ask for the emails.
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered the IRS to explain how it lost Lerner’s emails and gave the agency a month to do so, in response to a lawsuit by the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, which sued the IRS for not responding to a Freedom of Information Act request.