The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway for possibly violating the Hatch Act, according to an email published by a watchdog group Thursday. The group in question, Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint with the office after Conway went on Fox News in her official capacity as a White House official and denounced Senate candidate Doug Jones. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from using their authority to engage in partisan political activities or attempt to influence elections.
Conway is not being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is heading the Justice Department's probe into the 2016 election. Rather, the former pollster and counselor to President Trump is being looked at by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent law enforcement agency that investigates, among other things, Hatch Act violations.
"On Monday, November 20, 2017, Ms. Conway appeared on 'Fox and Friends' for an interview in her official capacity," the CLC wrote in its complaint. "During the interview, she was introduced with her official government title and she stood in front of the White House while unlawfully advocating against a candidate who is running in a partisan election for political office. Specifically, Ms. Conway advocated against the election of Doug Jones, who is running as a major party candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama. These actions violate the Hatch Act."
The CLC noted that in 2016, the Office of Special Counsel concluded that an Obama official, Julian Castro, had violated the Hatch Act by advocating "for and against" presidential candidates, and argued that Conway must be held to the same standard. On Nov. 22, the Office of Special Counsel emailed back and confirmed that it had opened a case file on Conway, according to Walter Shaub, a former ethics lawyer in the Obama administration and now senior director at CLC.
During her Fox & Friends interview, Conway did not explicitly endorse any of the candidates in the Alabama Senate race. However, she repeatedly condemned Jones, and explained that electing him to the Senate would threaten the Republican Party's ability to pass President Trump's tax reform bill.
"Doug Jones in Alabama?" Conway asked rhetorically. "Folks, don’t be fooled. He’ll be a vote against tax cuts." At another point, after calling Jones a "doctrinaire liberal," the Fox hosts asked Conway if she was thus endorsing Roy Moore, Jones' scandal-plagued opponent.
"I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax, this tax bill through," Conway replied. "I just want everybody to know Doug Jones — nobody ever says his name, and they pretend that he’s some kind of conservative Democrat in Alabama and he’s not.”
After the CLC filed its complaint, the White House released a statement addressing Conway's conduct:
Ms. Conway did not advocate for or against the election of a candidate, and specifically declined to encourage Alabamans to vote a certain way. She was speaking about issues and her support for the President’s agenda. This election is for the people ofAlabama to decide.
In an amended complaint filed Wednesday, however, the CLC argued that the White House statement "reads more like an admission than a defense."
"Doug Jones is not a sitting U.S. Senator," the CLC wrote. "The only relevance Doug Jones has to the President’s agenda is that he is running for the Senate, and that if he were to win, he could impact the success of the President’s agenda. The discussion excerpted above between Ms. Conway and the hosts of Fox and Friends focused precisely on the question of whether the President has enough votes in the Senate to get his tax bill through Congress."
On Wednesday, Politico reported that Trump himself gave Conway his "personal approval" to attack Jones in her Fox & Friends appearance before she went on air. The CLC noted this in its amended complaint to the Office of Special Counsel.