Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose contraceptives bill earlier this year sparked major protests by the Roman Catholic Church, has been accused by federal agents of violating federal law by campaigning for President Barack Obama.
"That the secretary violated federal law in this manner is disturbing, but hardly a surprise," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "Since almost day one, this administration has had a singular focus on politicking – not governing – that's borne out by the secretary ignoring a strict prohibition on electioneering while working for federal taxpayers."
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) revealed on Wednesday that Sebelius gave a speech in February at a Human Rights Campaign event in Charlotte, N.C., that noted how "imperative" it was to re-elect President Obama.
"One of the imperatives is to make sure that we not only come together here in Charlotte to present the nomination to the president, but we make sure that in November, he continues to be president for another four years," Sebelius said at the event.
The Obama administration has backed Sebelius's contraceptives mandate bill, which requires religious employers to provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs. The mandate has been strongly opposed by conservative Christians, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, who have even threatened to suspend their charity programs over what they see as a violation of their religious freedom.
On her part, Sebelius has admitted that she made a mistake in her speech, but said that she does not believe she should have been found guilty of violating the Hatch Act, which is a 1939 federal law that prohibits executive level employees from promoting specific politicians or parties.
"The report correctly states that I have acknowledged that the statements that you have identified were a mistake," Sebelius said in a Sept. 7 letter to the Office of Special Counsel, Reuters reported.
The White House also acknowledged that the HHS Secretary had made a mistake, and the Department of Health and Human Services reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the cost of the trip to Charlotte.
"This error was immediately acknowledged by the secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. "This administration holds itself to the highest ethical standards, which is why President Obama has installed the toughest ethics rules of any administration in history – beginning on his first day in office, when he signed an executive order instituting unprecedented reforms," he added.
In the same investigation, Sebelius was also accused of choosing party lines by urging the audience to "elect a Democratic governor here in North Carolina," calling for the defeat of a ballot seeking to preserve the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
"If there was a violation of the Hatch Act based on the use of my title, I believe the violation was technical and minor," Sebelius said, noting that she does not believe she will receive any punishment. "These are not the types of violations that the Hatch Act is intended to address."