January 25, 2016

Nonpartisan Watchdog Warns Castro, Cabinet Secretaries About Ethical Land Mines

As Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro completes a solo campaign swing for Hillary Clinton amid swirling vice presidential rumors, a non-partisan ethics watchdog group is sending a shot across the bow to Castro and other cabinet secretaries about the perils of politicking on the taxpayers’ dime.

The Foundation for Accountability & Civic Trust (FACT), an ethics group headed by former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker, released a “liability alert” memo to cabinet secretaries who “may choose or may have already chosen to endorse a presidential candidate in the 2016 campaign,” stating:

As you undoubtedly are aware, numerous federal laws and regulations place strict constraints on federal employees engaging in political activities. These rules are aimed at maintaining the integrity of the government, protecting both the taxpayers and government employees, and preventing undue partisanship in government.

The memo goes on to cite the Hatch Act – which former Heath and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius came under fire for violating in 2012 – and provisions in the federal code of ethics that prohibit “even the appearance of political partisanship” from federal officials.

The memo pointed to Hillary Clinton’s conduct as Secretary of State as a “cautionary tale”:

While your actions in relation to any election or political context are likely to come under heightened scrutiny, this is also equally applicable to the way you conduct your official duties.  Former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s pattern of granting preferential treatment to political donors while at the State Department should serve as a cautionary tale as you engage in your own political activities.

Castro is not alone in making an early endorsement. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez have also endorsed Clinton. An Associated Press report published Sunday noted the White House’s hands-off approach to cabinet officials’ endorsements:

White House officials say they have not offered any formal guidance to Cabinet members who have decided to wade into the race before the boss, only that they give the White House a courtesy heads up before they go public with their support.

America Rising PAC has already sought to hold Secretary Castro accountable for his use of his official position and taxpayer resources, filing FOIA requests for his travel expenses during his initial campaign trip with Clinton in October, and any communication between his office and the campaign.