Watchdog Asks DoD to Probe Whether Democrat Violated Department Directive

Congressional candidate skirting Pentagon rules for ex-military running for political office

Mike Derrick
Mike Derrick in uniform / Photo via Mike Derrick for Congress Facebook page

An ethics watchdog filed a complaint with the Department of Defense asking it to investigate a Democratic congressional candidate for violating rules that apply to ex-military members running for political office.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust asked the department’s Peter Levine, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to investigate Mike Derrick, a retired Army colonel running to represent New York’s 21st district, after the Washington Free Beacon reported that some of his campaign materials did not include a disclaimer mandated by the Defense Department in a 2008 directive.

"This is not a single violation, but rather a sequence of repeated and ongoing violations that should not be permitted to continue," Matthew Whitaker, executive director for FACT and a former U.S. attorney, wrote in the Monday letter.

The Pentagon directive stipulates that non-active duty military members can use their title, position, and photographs of themselves in military uniform in campaign literature "when displayed with other non-military biographic details," but that they must include a prominently displayed disclaimer with the information.

The disclaimer emphasizes that the military information does not imply an "endorsement by the Department of Defense or the candidate’s particular Military Department (or the Department of Homeland Security for members of the Coast Guard)," according to the directive.

The Free Beacon reported that photographs of Derrick in uniform posted on the campaign’s Facebook page do not include a disclaimer. The page itself does have one disclaimer visible only in the "About" section, though it is not visible with the photos.

Additionally, fundraising event invitations posted online that use Derrick’s military title—one of which features an image of him in uniform—do not include a disclaimer.

Derrick’s Twitter page, which promotes the campaign, also featured media showing Derrick in uniform and using his title without a disclaimer. Following publication of the Free Beacon story, the Twitter page now includes the disclaimer, "Use of military rank, job titles, & photographs in uniform do not imply endorsement by Dept of Army / Dept of Defense." The disclaimer is still not visible alongside the media in question.

Additionally, one of the main photographs displayed on Derrick’s campaign website may violate a section of the directive prohibiting non-active duty military members from using photographs of themselves in uniform as the "primary graphic representation" in their campaign media.

Derrick’s campaign manager expressed confidence last week that the candidate had not violated any directives. A lawyer for the campaign said in a phone call that the rules did not apply to him because he is fully retired from the Army. A spokesman for the Army told the Free Beacon that the prohibitions extend to retired military personnel.

"These campaign materials appear to come from a military official or give a military official’s political positions. It is precisely these type of campaign materials that indicate approval or endorsement by the Department of Defense, and are thus prohibited by the Directive," Whitaker wrote in the letter referencing the Free Beacon report.

"Even more troubling, is that when questioned about his violations, Derrick’s campaign reportedly claimed the rules did not apply to him because of his retirement status, which is contrary to the plain language of the Directive," he continued. "It is clear that unless the rules are enforced, Derrick will continue to violate them."

The watchdog urged Levine, whose office is charged with administering the directive, to "immediately investigate and take appropriate action in response to this apparent violation."

Derrick’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the watchdog’s complaint. Derrick is running to unseat Rep. Elise Stefanik (R.) in November.

Update 12:40 p.m.: Drew Prestridge, a campaign spokesman for Derrick, released the following statement denying that the candidate had violated Defense Department directives.

"We're not going to take a lecture on ethics from a politically-motivated organization that claims to stand for transparency, but refuses to disclose its list of shadowy, far-right donors. If they really cared about this issue, they'd be going after Republican representatives who provide absolutely no disclaimers. The fact that Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s conservative allies are targeting us tells you all you need to know."

"Our campaign clearly complies with the DoD directive, and if Congresswoman Stefanik and her far-right allies want to attack Mike Derrick for his decades of service, we're more than happy to have that debate. Voters are tired of the partisan politics-as-usual they're getting from Congresswoman Stefanik and they're ready for a change."