The Office of Special Counsel on Thursday ordered Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to reimburse taxpayers for using an official event to promote President Donald Trump’s reelection, a violation of ethics laws that prohibit certain political activity by executive branch employees.
Perdue’s reprimand comes after the USDA chief has increasingly blurred the lines between his public duties and his political support for Trump, as POLITICO reported on Monday.
At an event with Trump and North Carolina food producers in August, meant to showcase the Agriculture Department’s coronavirus relief efforts, Perdue offered a lengthy endorsement of the president that sent the audience into a chant of “Four more years!” The secretary praised Trump as a champion for “forgotten people” and a tireless worker with “business speed, not government speed,” among other plaudits.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group, filed a formal complaint that Perdue’s remarks were a clear violation of the Hatch Act. The special counsel’s office on Thursday concluded that Perdue had indeed crossed the line and ordered him to reimburse the government for travel expenses and other costs of his involvement in the North Carolina event.
“Taken as a whole, Secretary Perdue’s comments during the August 24 event encouraged those present, and those watching remotely, to vote for President Trump’s reelection,” the office wrote. “His first words were not about USDA, but about the president’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns.”
“Provided that immediate corrective action is taken and the U.S. Treasury is reimbursed for such costs, OSC will decline to pursue disciplinary action and instead consider this file closed with the issuance of the cure letter,” it added.
The special counsel’s office also noted that, when asked to explain Perdue’s remarks, USDA argued that “at no point did the secretary encourage or direct the crowd to vote for the president,” but merely “predicted future behavior based on the president’s focus on helping ‘forgotten people,’” farmers and unemployed workers. But the office said that USDA “offered no legal basis for its conclusion.”
The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the final decision.
Ethics authorities have already issued warnings to a dozen Trump administration officials for violating the Hatch Act, but Perdue’s straightforward appeal to reelect Trump was seen as especially flagrant.
“Even in an administration that has racked up a record number of Hatch Act violations, it is still shocking to see a Cabinet secretary violate the law in such an egregious manner,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder in a statement.
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