With presidential primary campaigns gaining steam, the office responsible for keeping political activity out of the federal workplace is warning employees that e-mails for or against a candidate are prohibited while on the job.
Last week, Special Counsel Scott Bloch rescinded a 2002 advisory opinion stating that the Hatch Act did not prohibit "water-cooler"-type exchanges of opinion e-mailed among co-workers, even regarding political campaigns. Several workers then used the water-cooler language to defend mass e-mails soliciting votes for candidates when Bloch pursued sanctions against them.
Recently, a three-member board that arbitrates civil service disputes ruled in Bloch's favor in four cases, defining such overt e-mails as banned "electronic leafleting" or "electioneering."
The court rulings show that "the prohibition of on-the-job political activity is total and includes e-mail," said Loren Smith, a spokesman for Bloch. "If we were to issue a new advisory opinion on that, it would be very short."
The question the board addressed in each case was how far federal workers could go in expressing their political views on company time. The Merit Systems Protection Board, for instance, overturned a lower court ruling favorable to two former Social Security Administration employees, who forwarded e-mails revealing their allegiances while at work in the agency's Kansas City, Mo., field office.
The first e-mail, from Leslye Sims was titled "FW: Fwd: Fw: Why I am Supporting John Kerry for President" Sims began her e-mail with "Some things to ponder ..." and then copied and pasted a pro-Kerry letter from John Eisenhower, son of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Eisenhower letter read: "Sen. Kerry, in whom I am willing to place my trust, has demonstrated that he is courageous, sober, competent, and concerned with fighting the dangers associated with the widening socio-economic gap in this country. I will vote for him enthusiastically."
Sims e-mailed the letter to 22 people, including colleague Michael Davis, who responded to 27 people with an e-mail tagged, "FW: Your Vote." The message contained a graphic of a button with a flag background and President George W. Bush's face in the center. Above his head were the words "I vote" and below "the Bible." The message questioned Kerry's morals and leadership skills.
"American society under Kerry's command is frightening to even think about," it read.
The addressees on both e-mails were not identical and included people not working for the federal government, but Smith said they clearly were improper.
Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act unit at the Office of Special Counsel, explained the rules this way.
"E-mails on duty or while in a federal building directed at the success or failure of a candidate, party or political organization are prohibited," she said. "Employees opining on the Iraq war or abortion, even though they may be issues in a hot race, are permitted -- unless they're specifically tied back to a candidate or party."
Galindo-Marrone, an attorney, gave the following example: An e-mail asking colleagues to support the National Rifle Association and rights for gun owners is permitted. An e-mail telling colleagues that the National Rifle Association is great, that John McCain is the only candidate who will protect Americans' gun rights and to "Click Here" to donate to McCain's campaign is not permitted.
So, it is not about "political content" per se, the attorney said. It is about e-mails that promote the success or defeat of a politician. Smith also warned workers about using blogs, posting YouTube clips or editing MySpace pages that promote candidates while in a federal office or on the job.
In a statement, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, described Bloch's new stance on this issue as less-balanced and "over-zealous." Bloch, she said, has an "obsessive focus on regulating the use of e-mail by rank-and-file federal employees," and his efforts could be better focused on protecting whistleblowers -- a mission Bloch "has seemingly forgotten."
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