Biden's Embattled HHS Secretary Violated Federal Ethics Law, Special Counsel Rules

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra (Getty Images)
April 19, 2023

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra brazenly violated a federal ethics law when he stumped for his close friend, California senator Alex Padilla (D.), on taxpayer dime during an event last year, the Office of Special Counsel announced Tuesday.

Becerra deviated from his prepared remarks during a speech at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus's annual awards ceremony in September to lavish praise on Padilla, whom he called "my brother, my friend, and senator." Speaking in his official capacity as HHS secretary, Becerra then announced he would be voting for the California senator in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, eliciting gasps from his staffers in the audience who knew their boss had just stepped into a legal landmine.

"Secretary Becerra crossed the line," the Office of Special Counsel said in its report, which found that the secretary's comments were a blatant violation of the Hatch Act. The act prohibits presidential appointees from using their official titles when engaging in partisan political activity.

Becerra's violation is just the latest in a string of legal transgressions from the Biden administration, which has shown little regard for the Hatch Act since taking over the reins of the federal government in January 2021. The Office of Special Counsel has also reprimanded Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, and former chief of staff Ron Klain for violating the 1939 law.

Becerra in a March 30 email to investigators claimed ignorance of the law as a defense. The HHS secretary said he was not aware at the time of the reward gala that his remarks were a violation of the Hatch Act. He also promised to "work hard" to ensure he no longer violates the federal ethics law in future events.

But the Office of Special Counsel said Becerra should have known better, saying his "proffered explanations do not serve to mitigate the issuance of this report." The investigators stressed the severity of Becerra's crime, noting that his actions, if gone unaddressed, "undermine the viability of the Hatch Act and its purpose of ensuring a federal civil service free of partisan political influence."

The office noted that Becerra has participated in "comprehensive training on the Hatch Act, including a presentation from the White House Counsel's Office just three months before the gala," and that his unlawful statement in support of Padilla "was so obviously concerning that a member of his own staff, present at the gala, gasped and said, 'No, no, you can't say that,' immediately after hearing it."

High-profile Hatch Act violators are often let off with slaps on the wrist. It is not clear, however, what penalty Becerra will face for his infraction. The Office of Special Counsel on Tuesday referred the matter to President Joe Biden for "appropriate action."

The Hatch Act violation is the latest PR nightmare for Becerra, who has been called an "incompetent and out to lunch" secretary. Becerra came under fire this week after he was implicated in a New York Times report on the Biden administration's failure to prevent the exploitation of immigrant children.

The White House did not return a request for comment.