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White House Official’s Political Tweet Was Illegal, Agency Says

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Dan Scavino Jr., the White House director of social media, talking to Sean Spicer, the press secretary, last month outside the Oval Office.

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Al Drago/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Dan Scavino Jr., the White House director of social media, violated a federal law that prohibits political activity by government employees, the federal agency empowered to enforce the law has concluded, citing the tweet Mr. Scavino sent in April calling for the defeat of a Republican member of Congress who has been critical of President Trump.

The United States Office of Special Counsel took no official action to punish Mr. Scavino, but it issued a warning that became public on Friday that “if in the future he engages in prohibited political activity while employed in a position covered by the Hatch Act,” the office could move to enforce the 78-year-old law.

The feud between Mr. Scavino and Representative Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, escalated during the debate over the effort to roll back President Barack Obama’s health care program, as Mr. Amash was among the conservative Freedom Caucus members who questioned the initial proposal.

The tweet sent by Mr. Scavino, who had also worked on Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, argued that “@justinamash is a big liability. #TrumpTrain, defeat him in primary.”

It was posted on Mr. Scavino’s personal Twitter account, which at that time included a photo of him in the White House, and his biography identified him as a federal employee.



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Document: Read the Letter on the Hatch Act Violation


Mr. Amash replied that same day — “Bring it on. I’ll always stand up for liberty, the Constitution & Americans of every background” — in a tweet that also linked to Mr. Amash’s campaign fund-raising website, also a possible violation.

The Office of Special Counsel, in reviewing the tweet by Mr. Scavino, concluded that “this activity violated the Hatch Act. Accordingly, we issued Mr. Scavino a warning letter,” although it would not release a copy of the letter on Friday.

The only public response came in a notification received late Thursday by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the liberal nonprofit group that filed the complaint against Mr. Scavino. “In addition, we note that Mr. Scavino was recently counseled about the Hatch Act by the Office of the White House Counsel,” the letter to CREW, as it is known, also said.

Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director, said he was pleased that the agency reached this conclusion.

“The law is clear that government officials can’t use their official positions for political or campaign activity,” Mr. Bookbinder said on Friday, after his organization released the letter. “It is important to maintain real lines between government and politics and the Office of Special Counsel’s position makes clear they are going to be active to protect those lines.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This is the second time a White House official has been reprimanded for apparently violating federal law, with Kellyanne Conway being rebuked in February by the Office of Government Ethics for urging the public to buy fashion products sold by Ivanka Trump’s brand.

The federal law puts no limits on the ability of federal officials to take positions that are critical of policies supported by others.

But a federal official may not use his or her official position, while on duty, or in a federal workplace, to urge a particular political outcome, like the ouster of Mr. Amash, or use it to raise money for a political cause, which led the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics group to also file a complaint against Mr. Amash with the Office of Congressional Ethics, which has jurisdiction over members of the House.

A violation of the Hatch Act can result in a letter of reprimand, a civil fine of up to $1,000 or the suspension, demotion or even the removal of a federal employee, with enforcement powers generally vested in the United States Merit Systems Protection Board, if a charge is raised by the Office of Special Counsel, for individuals like Mr. Scavino who is not confirmed by the Senate.

What happens more often is federal employees accept settlements that often include suspensions or resignation, without a formal charge.

Members of Congress can be disciplined by the House or Senate ethics committees. CREW has not received a response to its complaint filed about Mr. Amash’s tweets, as these investigations often take many months.

Mr. Amash has shown no sign that he is backing down from his occasional criticism of Mr. Trump or his willingness to challenge him, including supporting an independent investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Mr. Scavino, however, has been more careful in his tweets, the Office of Special Counsel said in its letter to CREW. “A review of Mr. Scavino’s personal Twitter account since that time did not reveal any new violations,” the letter from the agency said.

Correction: June 9, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the group that filed a complaint against Mr. Scavino. It is the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, not the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government.

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