Political e-mails don't violate law, judge rules

FEDERAL WORKERS

April 29, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

JUST HOW far can federal workers go in expressing their political views in the workplace during a highly charged presidential campaign?

An administrative law judge ruled this month that two Social Security employees did not violate the law when they forwarded e-mails on government time and computers for or against former presidential candidate John Kerry last year.

Administrative Law Judge Arthur J. Amchan's April 14 ruling states that the borrowed content of the e-mails and their limited audiences amounted to "water-cooler"-type discussions or "face-to-face expressions of personal opinion" that did not violate the Hatch Act. That law prohibits taxpayer money from paying for political activities and federal employees from doing partisan work on taxpayers' time.

The Office of Special Counsel, which is responsible for enforcing the act and wants the employees fired, issued a statement that the two e-mails -- one went to 22 people, the other to 27 -- were akin to "using government resources to engage in political leafleting at the workplace," which is prohibited.

Special Counsel Scott Bloch said the office will appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which rules on personnel disputes between managers and employees.

"By now, most federal employees should be well aware of their responsibility not to advocate for a specific political candidate while on duty and using their government e-mail account," the statement said.

The first e-mail, forwarded Oct. 25, was titled "Why I am supporting John Kerry for President" and consisted of a pro-Kerry letter from John Eisenhower, son of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Another employee, who received that e-mail, replied later that morning in an e-mail titled "Your vote," which questioned Kerry's morals and included a picture of President Bush in front of an American flag with the statement "I VOTE THE BIBLE," the judge's ruling states.

"The wearing of a partisan political button by a federal employee on duty is much closer to the public policy advanced by the Hatch Act than the dissemination of an employee's personal views via his or her computer," Amchan wrote. "Many federal employees come in contact with the public in the course of their duties. It is important they eschew conveying their partisan political views when conducting business -- a danger not posed by a one-time dissemination of partisan opinion via e-mail to a limited audience."

`Double-dipping'

Two Republican members of Congress are attempting again this year to partially undo a provision in the federal government's old retirement system that reduces workers' Social Security benefits.

The Windfall Elimination Provision is a complicated measure that prevents "double-dipping" -- retired federal workers pulling pensions and full Social Security benefits.

But the provision also penalizes federal employees who pay into Social Security, such as by working part-time on the side or full-time in the private sector after retirement.

Rep. Kevin Brady and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Texas Republicans, are trying to stop that policy.

The best way to explain how this works is to use examples.

The proposal affects only people enrolled in the old Civil Service Retirement System -- mostly those who began working for the federal government before 1983.

For example, a postal service employee who started in 1950 and spent his entire career with the federal government never would have paid into Social Security, and thus, under the current rules, doesn't get anything from it. That person, instead, receives a federal pension.

But consider the situation of a co-worker who also started with the postal service in 1950 and left for a job in the private sector after 20 years with the government. That person would receive a federal pension but also would be paying Social Security taxes at his private-sector job.

When that person retires, his Social Security benefits would be trimmed because of the federal pension. He would receive a smaller Social Security check each month than a colleague earning the same salary who had spent just as much time at that private company.

Under the bills proposed by Brady and Hutchison, that inequality would be erased at an estimated cost of $7 billion over 10 years.

National Security

A group of federal whistleblowers who have exposed blunders in national security efforts formed a coalition yesterday after lobbying members of Congress to hold hearings on government retaliation against them.

The group of 50 current and former federal employees includes Russ Tice, a senior intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency, according to an advisory posted at www.justa citizen.com.

The group's largest bloc comes from the FBI, with 17 members. The group is led by Sibel Edmonds, a former Turkish and Persian translator for the FBI who was fired after she alleged incompetence and possible "infiltration" of her department.

The writer welcomes comments and story tips. She can be reached at melissa.harris @baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Back issues can be accessed at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.

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