U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins’ surprising decision to attend a political fundraiser last year was a mistake and showed “poor judgment” but it was not a capital offense, a constitutional expert told the Herald on Tuesday after news broke that Rollins is stepping down.
Meanwhile, a U.S. senator on Tuesday proposed a bill to increase enforcement of the Hatch Act — the act that Rollins possibly violated when she attended the Democratic National Committee fundraiser with First Lady Jill Biden in Andover.
The Hatch Act is meant to ensure that federal officials remain non-political, but federal officials are still committing violations, New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Lujan said when announcing the legislation.
Senate-confirmed Department of Justice appointees are allowed to engage in political activity, but they have to abide by certain guidelines under the Hatch Act.
“All prosecutors are told that they should not be involved in any partisan activities,” attorney Harvey Silverglate, a constitutional and civil liberties lawyer, told the Herald. “So they’re not questioned when they decide who to indict or not to indict.
“It was a mistake. There’s no question about it,” Silverglate added about Rollins’ choice to attend the DNC fundraiser. “She’s smart, so I was surprised with her showing up to it (the fundraiser)… I don’t think it was a capital offense, but it was poor judgment.”
The Biden administration is “extra sensitive” right now as the president seeks re-election, Silverglate said, adding that the administration is trying to get rid of all sources of potential criticism.
Federal prosecutors are allowed to engage in political advocacy, but they can’t use their office to do it.
“It’s especially important for prosecutors and folks in the Department of Justice to abide by the strict policies (of the Hatch Act),” said Donald Sherman, chief counsel of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, noting the power that federal prosecutors’ wield.
“It is unfortunate that the U.S. Attorney engaged in this conduct, but hopefully this is a positive step forward,” Sherman said of her resignation.
Rollins stepping down is a notable contrast to the many people in the Trump administration who violated the Hatch Act and did not resign, Sherman noted. Those who violated the Hatch Act included Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway and Peter Navarro, assistant to the president and director of the Office for Trade and Manufacturing Policy.
“There were a number of senior political appointees and White House officials who violated the Hatch Act multiple times with impunity and were recommended to be fired, only for those requests to be rebuffed by the president,” Sherman said of the Trump administration.
For alleged violations of the Hatch Act, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is authorized to investigate and prosecute violations before the Merit Systems Protection Board. In recent years, OSC’s enforcement has been inconsistent, according to Lujan, who introduced the Hatch Act bill on Tuesday.
In a recent 4-year period, 17 political appointees violated the Hatch Act, yet OSC only penalized one, raising serious questions about the enforcement of the Hatch Act.
“… The Office of Special Counsel has failed to investigate and prosecute some of the most serious claims, undermining the American people and the rule of law,” Lujan said in a statement. “Today, I’m introducing legislation that increases enforcement of the Hatch Act by providing clarity and Congressional oversight for any potential abuses.
“It’s unacceptable when the line between politics and government is ignored,” Lujan added. “That’s why my legislation increases accountability to ensure Americans can have confidence in the public servants who work for them.”
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