Wednesday, February 01, 2023

A NOAA Employee Ignored the Hatch Act Repeatedly. It Took a Decade For Him to Be Fired. (Government Executive)

Keith Arnold, a NOAA accounting technician, repeatedly ran for Congress in Democratic primaries in Washington State, drawing few votes each time, while running afoul of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from seeking office for partisan races.  

Mr. Arnold was repeatedly warned, but he persisted in his Hatch Act violations.  It took some ten years to fire him.   

Our U.S. Office of Special Counsel and an Administrative Law Judge with the Merit Systems Protection Board both did their jobs, recommending removal from the federal service for Hatch Act violations.  Lacking a quorum for five (5) years, until 2022, the oxymoronic "Merit Systems Protection Board" finally ruled on his case on January 17, 2023.    

Mr. Arnold, who was pro se, argued that the "top two" universal primary in Washington State's Eighth Congressional District converted a partisan race for Congress into a nonpartisan race.  OSC, the ALJ and the MSPB all disagreed.  Mr. Arnold is now fired after a decade of Hatch Act violations, unless the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reverses the decision. 
From Government Executive:

The employee continued to campaign despite being warned it was a Hatch Act violation.

The employee continued to campaign despite being warned it was a Hatch Act violation. MIHAJLO MARICIC / EYEEM VIA GETTY IMAGES

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee was removed from federal employment after violating the Hatch Act by running for Congress several times over the past decade. 

The Office of Special Counsel, which oversees civil service law, announced on Tuesday that the Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed OSC’s penalty for Keith Arnold, a NOAA employee since 2010, to be fired after he violated the Hatch Act by running for partisan political office several times over the past decade. The Hatch Act limits federal employees’ political activities.

“While disciplinary action has taken some time due to a lack of quorum at MSPB, I am pleased that Mr. Arnold will finally be removed from his federal position for egregious and ongoing violations of the Hatch Act,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner said. MSPB regained a quorum in March 2022 after five years without one. 

Under the Hatch Act, most civilian federal employees can be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections, but not partisan elections. In 2016, OSC filed a complaint against Arnold, saying he violated the Hatch Act by running in the primary election for a House seat in Washington state. This came after the OSC issued a warning letter against running in the same primary in 2012. 

“An initial decision issued in January 2017 by an MSPB administrative law judge found that OSC proved its case, and that removal was the appropriate penalty for the violation,” an OSC press release stated. But then Arnold filed an appeal and was able to keep his federal job since MSPB lacked a quorum for years. 

“During this time, Mr. Arnold has continued to run as a candidate for the same office every two years, including in last year's primary,” OSC said. “In each campaign, Mr. Arnold's campaign website has declared that he is a ‘proud federal employee’ referencing his position at NOAA in violation of the Hatch Act.” 

NOAA declined to comment on the ruling. Government Executive reached out to the email for Arnold’s campaign (on the still-active website for the election that he lost,), but did not immediately receive a response. 

In April 2022, in one of its first decisions after regaining a quorum, MSPB ruled that a U.S. Postal Service employee didn’t have to give up his position as a country commissioner in Tennessee or his other day job. However, OSC said the situation was “unusual” and it doesn’t plan to enter such settlement agreements going forward. 

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