Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue crossed the line in August when he told a North Carolina audience during an official visit that they could get another four years of a “decider-in-chief” if America votes for President Donald Trump, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Thursday.
The government watchdog said Perdue’s comments at the Aug. 24 event in Mills River, N.C., violated the Hatch Act, but that there will be no disciplinary action if he quickly reimburses the U.S. Treasury for travel costs paid for by taxpayers. The law generally bars federal employees from engaging in political activities while on duty, but exempts the president and vice president.
The Office of Special Counsel decision comes in response to a complaint filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that Perdue’s comments during the trip with Trump and an adviser to the president, Ivanka Trump, to tout a $1 billion boost to the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program constituted political activity while doing official government work.
The original $3 billion program was established to help farmers and food distributors who lost markets and customers because of COVID-19 supply chain disruptions cut their losses while providing food to food banks and other nonprofits dealing with a surge in demand. Congress provided authority and funding for the program in two COVID-19 relief laws.
CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder welcomed the reprimand of Perdue.
“Misusing the federal government to help keep the president in power seriously undermines democracy. This administration has shown its lack of concern about these anti-democratic abuses, but it’s a good thing the Office of Special Counsel still values upholding this important law,” Bookbinder said in a statement.
The USDA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Several House Democrats led by Rep. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations, asked the USDA Office of Ethics on Aug. 28 to review Perdue’s speech.
According to the special counsel’s letter to CREW, the office reviewed several portions of Perdue’s speech as well as the USDA’s argument that Perdue had not directly urged people to vote for Trump. The department said, “Such statements — those of a factual, predictive, and/or policy-based nature — do not implicate the Hatch Act’s prohibitions. Secretary Perdue did not encourage attendees to vote for a candidate or party or advocate for a partisan political group.”
Perdue noted that people along the roads leading from the airport to Mills River were among the “forgotten people” who had voted for Trump in 2016. Perdue addressed Trump and said, “They and many others are going to vote for you for four more years in 2020. Because they understand, under your administration, they’ve not been forgotten.”
But the special counsel’s office said the USDA’s justification for comments have no legal basis and runs counter to the Hatch Act.
“Taken as a whole, Secretary Perdue’s comments during the August 24 event encouraged those present, and those watching remotely, to vote for President Trump’s reelection,” the letter from the special counsel’s office said.
“His first words were not about USDA, but about the president’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Secretary Perdue described why those in Mills River voted for the president in 2016 and gave them a reason to vote for him again in 2020 — because under a Trump Administration, they will not be ‘forgotten,'” the special counsel’s office said.