Don’t mix Chia Pets with politics.
That is one of the many lessons U.S. EPA employees are learning during the 2016 presidential campaign’s rough and tumble.
Politicking in the workplace is a no-no at federal agencies thanks to a decades-old law known as the Hatch Act, even if it involves everyone’s favorite terracotta figurine houseplant.
Emails obtained by E&E News detail a political hiccup this summer in EPA’s Office of General Counsel over an employee alerting his peers to try an office treat he brought in — homemade sourdough bread with chia seeds.
In his July 19 email, Don Sadowsky, an EPA attorney and breadmaker, included an image of Chia Pets in the guise of this year’s White House nominees, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Sadowsky wanted to highlight his ware’s use of chia seeds by sharing the Chia Pets’ image. He also joked about venturing into the troublesome terrain of politics with his email, telling ethics officials he was not endorsing either Clinton or Trump.
"I am not expressing any opinion regarding which chia hairdo is more fitting for the candidate," he wrote. "Therefore I do not believe there is any Hatch Act violation. But if I’m wrong, please spare my family the pain of seeing me do a perp walk."
On Aug. 2, Jennie Keith, an EPA deputy ethics official, sent an email noting that "the Hatch Act does not have a sense of humor" and forbids in the workplace pictures of candidates vying for partisan public office.
"Comedy has always been a tough issue to parse through with the Hatch Act. Editorial cartoons, gifs, chia heads … but all through the years, the Hatch Act Unit (housed in the Office of Special Counsel) has consistently advised no comedy; to err on the side of caution, especially in the age of email, and now in the era of social media. Because you just don’t know how someone will take it," Keith said.
Later, in an Aug. 31 email, Keith wrote that "after some feedback," EPA ethics officials consulted with OSC, which would have advised against sharing an image of the Clinton and Trump Chia Pets but it did not constitute a Hatch Act violation.
The National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280, which represents Sadowsky, intervened in the kerfuffle. Joe Edgell, chapter senior vice president, said: "Honestly, we thought [Keith’s original email] was bit of an overreaction."
"What the union was upset about was the implication that a member of the union had violated the law [Hatch Act] when he hadn’t," Edgell said. "We got involved to push the agency to clearly say there was no violation of the law, and that is what we obtained."
The agency’s ethics office updated its Hatch Act guidance this year and shared it with agency lawyers, according to a separate email sent by Keith on July 14. And on Friday last week, Justina Fugh, EPA’s senior ethics counsel, emailed out a Hatch Act reminder to ethics officials.
"EPA takes the Hatch Act and its requirements seriously as it’s the law and serves an important purpose," Monica Lee, an EPA spokeswoman, said in an email to E&E News.
"The agency has Deputy Ethics Officials in offices across our various program and regional offices, and those officials take advantage of opportunities to help their colleagues understand not just the Hatch Act, but the full range of federal ethics requirements," Lee said.
The Hatch Act is no laughing matter and can result in serious penalties for federal employees. OSC has highlighted cases this year of employees across the federal government showing their political preferences in the workplace. They include:
- A U.S. Postal Service employee in Colorado had to take down a "Make America Great Again" poster — Trump’s campaign slogan — that was up behind the post office’s desk.
- A Federal Aviation Administration worker had to stop displaying a Clinton bobblehead.
- OSC is investigating further allegations against a U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee who already had to take down a "derogatory picture" of Clinton visible to the public.
- A Commerce Department employee was suspended without pay for 50 days for helping out Republican campaigns during office hours and soliciting campaign contributions, which federal workers can’t even do off-duty under the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act has also embroiled high-profile political appointees, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. In a July report, OSC found Castro violated the law when he discussed his support of Clinton during a press interview.
The special counsel’s office updated its own guidance on the Hatch Act last year to deal with the social media age. Notable changes say federal employees can post campaign logos and candidate photos on their Facebook and Twitter accounts but should refrain from doing any political posts while on the job.
OSC has plenty of complaints to sift through this election year. In an email to E&E News, spokesman Nick Schwellenbach said that in fiscal 2016, the office received 197 Hatch Act complaints — 138 related to federal employees and the other 59 associated with state and local government workers.