Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius broke the law in February when she ad-libbed “political remarks” during a speech, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday.
The office said the former Kansas governor violated the Hatch Act — which prohibits government officials from making political statements while working in their official capacities — during a speech in North Carolina.
During the speech Sebelius urged voters to support a Democratic candidate for governor and to re-elect President Barack Obama, the office found. She had traveled to the state in her official capacity as a Cabinet secretary.
The law does not outline specific penalties for violations by Cabinet members. The office delivered its findings to the White House, which has the power to take “appropriate action” under federal law.
The report quoted Sebelius as regretting her remarks.
“I clearly made a mistake,” she told the office. “I was not intending to use an official capacity to do a political event. I think it veered into political space at an official event, and I regret that it occurred.”
Following a request to investigate the trip, the Health and Human Services department reclassified the speech as political, and taxpayers were reimbursed for the costs of the travel. Because of those actions, the office found, Sebelius did not run afoul of laws that prohibit spending taxpayer funds for political purposes.
Sebelius gave the speech Feb. 25 at a Human Rights Campaign Gala in Charlotte, N.C., the site of this year’s Democratic National Convention.
In a letter Friday to the office, Sebelius wrote that she considered the finding on the Hatch Act violation “somewhat unfair” because she spoke mostly in her speech about her department’s programs and objectives.
“Keeping the roles straight can be a difficult task, particularly on mixed trips that involve both campaign and official stops on the same day,” she wrote.
Republicans criticized Sebelius, and some suggested she resign.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said in a statement that his committee on government oversight “awaits President Obama’s decision ... the president should consider the important leadership role of Cabinet secretaries and the example they must set.”
The Sebelius episode may end up having more impact in the North Carolina governor’s race than in Washington.
In February, after the Charlotte Observer’s coverage of the event, a Democratic Party official accused Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton of misleading Sebelius during a back-stage meeting by presenting himself as the only Democratic candidate in the race.
Sebelius appeared to endorse Dalton in the February speech. He went on to win the party nomination for governor.
A spokesman for Dalton said the candidate had no prior knowledge that she was going to acknowledge his campaign.
But on Wednesday, the state Republican Party jumped on the report to criticize Dalton.
“News reports suggest that Walter Dalton misled Secretary Sebelius into an endorsement of his candidacy,” said North Carolina GOP spokesman Rob Lockwood. “Dalton’s actions have serious consequences, as they were a major part of Sebelius violating the Hatch Act.”