By Donald Judd, CNN
Updated: Sat, 16 Oct 2021 11:59:33 GMT
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a Hatch Act complaint against White House press secretary Jen Psaki, alleging that she appeared to have endorsed Terry McAuliffe during a White House press briefing on Thursday.
According to the US Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with investigating Hatch Act violations, the law prohibits federal employees from "using their official titles or positions while engaged in political activity," including "any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group."
During the briefing, Psaki acknowledged that she could not make an endorsement from the podium, saying, "I have to be a little careful about how much political analysis I do from here, and not, not traipse into that too much."
She then told reporters: "We're going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he's representing."
CREW took issue with that particular answer, saying in a news release that Psaki acknowledged the limitations that the Hatch Act puts on the statements she could make from the podium. However, the group believed that she stepped over the line with her comment.
The group noted in its release that Donald Trump's White House routinely ignored violations of the Hatch Act, most notably from senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who violated the rule so frequently the Office of Special Counsel recommended she be removed from federal service.
A number of former Trump officials -- including his trade adviser Peter Navarro, former Attorney General William Barr, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue -- were also criticized for possible violations of the act, though none were ever reprimanded.
CREW acknowledged that Psaki's potential violation "is nowhere near as extreme as those of her predecessors."
"The last administration systematically co-opted the government for the president's reelection. While this conduct does not come close to rising to the level of the outrageous offenses of the Trump administration, that does not mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law," CREW President Noah Bookbinder told CNN in a statement Friday. "The Biden administration should not follow the Trump administration down that path."
Psaki responded to CREW's complaint in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper on "The Lead" on Friday, saying, "I take ethics seriously. So does the President, of course."
"As I understand it, if I had said 'he' instead of 'we,' that would not have been an issue at all, and I'll be more careful with my words next time," Psaki said. "Words certainly matter."
In a tweet Friday, CREW applauded her mea culpa, writing, "We appreciate Jen Psaki and the Biden administration reaffirming their commitment to ethics and to the law, something all too rare in recent years. We look forward to a renewed commitment to compliance with the Hatch Act from the administration."
Psaki is not the first Biden official to run afoul of the Hatch Act.
During a press briefing in March, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge told reporters she thought Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley and US Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, were both good candidates to fill Republican Sen. Rob Portman's seat.
"I think we're going to put a good person in that race no matter who we choose, but they're both friends," Fudge said, adding, "I think we have a good shot at it. I know people have written off Ohio. I haven't written off Ohio. I believe we can win the Senate race."
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.