3 US workers face investigation over Obama e-mail
By Bryan Bender Globe Staff / January 26, 2008
WASHINGTON - Three federal employees are being investigated for unlawful political activities after they allegedly sent an e-mail falsely accusing Barack Obama of being a "radical Muslim," the Globe has learned. The US Office of Special Counsel - the independent federal agency responsible for enforcing a law banning civil service workers from engaging in political activism while performing their official duties - has launched investigations of two employees at one agency and one employee at another agency. All three are believed to have forwarded the erroneous chain e-mail about Obama from their government e-mail accounts. Doing so would be a violation of the Hatch Act, a 1939 law designed to help protect career government employees and the government workforce from the influence of partisan politics. The act bans civil servants from taking "any active part" in political campaigns while on the job.
If a special oversight board finds the three employees in violation of the act, punishment could range from suspension from work without pay to termination from their jobs and disqualification from any future government employment. A spokesman for the special counsel office, which has about 100 employees and a $17 million annual budget, said news of the investigations could deter other government employees from spreading partisan information over the Internet - including many who do not know it is illegal.
"We think that this e-mail could be the tip of the iceberg and that we may have many more similar e-mails circulating in federal agencies," said James Mitchell, the office's communications director. "People need to stop doing this." Quick access to the Internet from work "makes it easier for people to make the mistake," he said. "Now people can step into trouble very easily just by forwarding a message that someone else sent to them." Mitchell would not identify the individuals under investigation for privacy reasons, nor would he say which agencies they work for because the investigation has not been completed. The US Army has already told its soldiers not to use government computers to spread the Obama smear. Personnel at the US Army Medical Command in Fort Sam Houston, were warned last week after an Army employee used an official e-mail address to send the message to soldiers and civilian employees worldwide. Federal laws bar military personnel from actively engaging in politics while in uniform.
The e-mail questioning Obama's faith and patriotism, though widely discredited, is still alive on the Internet, where it has been forwarded to thousands of voters and has appeared on right-wing blogs. It recently appeared on a local Republican Party office's website in Washington state. The anonymous author has not been identified and the origin of the e-mail is unknown. A version of the e-mail asserts this is "something that should be considered in your choice" for president. Several federal and state employees were found to be in violation of the Hatch Act last year, including some who sent politically-motived e-mails. One federal employee who disseminated an e-mail to 27 of her colleagues about a political candidate with links to his campaign website was suspended without pay. Mitchell has said the office - which received a $1.1 million funding increase - is bracing for a sharp rise in unlawful political activity by government employees. "With the political season on, this is a time when people become more vulnerable because there is just more activity in the political realm," he said.