The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has recently investigated several cases in which Internal Revenue Service employees allegedly engaged in partisan political activity in the workplace, advocating in support of President Obama.
Among the duties of the Office of Special Counsel is to enforce violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits employees of the executive branch of the federal government from engaging in partisan political activity, with the exception of the president, vice president and certain other high-level officials.
The OSC filed a complaint Tuesday with the Merit Systems Protection Board seeking disciplinary action against an IRS customer service representative who allegedly used his authority and influence for a political purpose and engaged in prohibited political activity while in the IRS workplace. When fielding taxpayer questions from an IRS customer service help line, the employee is said to have urged taxpayers to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name. “Given the seriousness of the allegations and the employee’s Hatch Act knowledge, OSC is seeking significant disciplinary action,” the office said Wednesday.
In another case, a tax advisory specialist in Kentucky will serve a 14-day suspension for promoting her partisan political views to a taxpayer she was helping during the 2012 Presidential election season. The OSC received a recorded conversation in which the employee told a taxpayer 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.”
“And I went, You’re right.’ I found that out,” the employee added.
The OSC said the employee’s supervisor had advised her about the Hatch Act’s restrictions only weeks before the conversation took place. But that did not deter the employee, who told the taxpayer, “I’m not supposed to voice my opinion, so you didn’t hear me saying that.”
Following the OSC’s investigation, the employee entered into a settlement agreement with the OSC earlier this month. In the agreement, she admitted to violating the Hatch Act’s restrictions against engaging in political activity while on duty and in the workplace and using her official authority or influence to affect the result of an election.
In a separate case, the OSC said it had received allegations that employees working in the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in Dallas, Texas, 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.
Asked about the allegations by Accounting Today, an IRS spokesman forwarded a statement from the agency. “The IRS cannot comment on specific situations involving employees,” said the IRS. “The IRS requires its employees to follow the guidelines of the federal Hatch Act and the rules for political activity by federal workers. The IRS regularly reminds employees of the Hatch Act guidelines. When the IRS receives allegations of violations of the Hatch Act, it follows all the proper procedures and protocols and refers the matter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. The independent Office of Special Counsel has the authority to investigate, determine the facts and take appropriate disciplinary action for violations of the Hatch Act.”
The incidents come at a sensitive time for the IRS, which has come under fire in the past year for giving extra scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status from political groups, particularly those on the right, by screening out applications from organizations with words such as “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their names. Earlier this week, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to send a criminal referral letter to Attorney General Eric Holder about the former director of the IRS’s Exempt Organization’s unit, Lois Lerner, for refusing to testify or provide more information about her actions (see House Committee Refers Ex-IRS Official Lois Lerner to DOJ for Prosecution).
While the Exempt Organizations unit also apparently gave extra scrutiny to some liberal groups by screening for terms such as “Progressive” and “Occupy” in their tax-exempt status applications, Republicans in Congress have insisted that the IRS tended to target conservative groups more than liberal groups and delayed or denied their applications more frequently.