The Hatch Act Strikes Again
by James Leonard
An obscure 1939 federal law originally designed to curb rampant patronage in the post office, the Hatch Act is now being used as a blunt political object to force candidates out of elections—or jobs.
The act’s changed the course of three county races this year. Saline police chief Paul Bunten dropped his bid for county sheriff after incumbent Dan Minzey notified him he was in violation of the act. Wes Prater resigned from the county road commission after he was accused of violating the act by running for county commissioner. Prater went on to win the Dem¬ocratic commission primary, and will face Republican Owen Diaz in the general election on November 4.
But by far the most dramatic—and the most confusing—use of the Hatch Act for political purposes is in Pittsfield Township. When Alan Israel filed a primary challenge to incumbent clerk Feliziana Meyer, Meyer filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about him. She learned that as chief of staff in the county prosecutor’s office Israel had overseen two federal grants—and the Hatch Act prohibits anyone who administers federal funds from running for elected office. Though Israel had already turned the grants over to other people to manage, he continued to supervise one of those people. And that, it turned out, was enough to put him in violation of federal law.
Meyer contacted the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which administers the Hatch Act. OSC attorney Peta-Gay Irving told Israel that if he didn’t quit either his job or the race, he’d pay the price for violating the Hatch Act: forced resignation and repayment of two years’ salary. So, as Israel put it to the Ann Arbor News in late July, “I did the right and honorable thing by resigning from the prosecutor’s office.”
Israel went on to beat Meyer soundly in the August primary—but soon afterward, Meyer sent Irving an email that opened, “Alan Israel said that he did the ‘right and honorable’ thing by
resigning in July, but the attached documents show that he has been paid all along.”
The payroll documents Meyer had FOIAed did indeed show Israel getting regular checks from the county—even though he was no longer working. And that, too, violated the Hatch Act. “Although the Office of Special Counsel had earlier declared the case closed,” says spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, “we reopened investigation because we learned that Mr. Israel has not retired. Until Alan Israel actually retires, he’s in violation of the Hatch Act.”
“I emphatically disagree,” Israel responded in early October. “No, I’m not retired yet, and yes, I’m being paid for sick and vacation time I never used. But I’m not an active employee. I’m not going into the office. I’m not supervising anybody. But they make the rules, and I now have two weeks to remedy the conflict. So I have an appointment with the retirement office tomorrow, and my retirement starts effective this Saturday.”
Taking his back pay as a lump sum solved Israel’s problems with the Office of Special Counsel—but not with Meyer. “He tried to arrange backroom deals to get around the Hatch Act so he could run and still get all the benefits of keeping his job,” she says. “Even if he does retire now, he’s violated the public trust. I don’t think he should run and I don’t think he should be elected.” In mid-October, Meyer announced that she and four others defeated in the August primary will run as write-in candidates in November. They’re calling their slate “Honest and Experienced Leadership.”
“The whole notion of the Hatch Act being applied locally is quite novel to people’s experience around here,” comments county clerk Larry Kestenbaum. “Absolutely it’s happening more, and absolutely in ways that had not been intended. At the time the Hatch Act was written, local government didn’t do federally funded initiatives, and it needs to be reconsidered in light of the enormously expanded role of the federal government, especially since 9/11. If this is what they want, the pool of potential candidates for local office is going to shrink dramatically.”Asked whether he thinks the Hatch Act was appropriately applied in his case, Israel declares passionately, “No! This is absolutely ridiculous! The way they interpret it now, almost no government worker would be eligible to run for office. You’ll have to FOIA yourself before you decide to run to make sure you’re not breaking the law.”
[Originally published in October, 2008.]