Media Trackers has learned that an investigation is underway into U.S. Postal Service employees at two central Wisconsin post offices who were given leaves of absence to campaign for Democratic candidates Russ Feingold for Senate and Hillary Clinton for president.
A source has told Media Trackers an employee in the Marshfield Post Office and two in the Wisconsin Rapids office were, with virtually no advance notice, given leaves of absence to campaign for Feingold and Clinton and were compensated for their efforts by the Wisconsin Association of Letter Carriers, the union representing postal workers.
The source tells us that the red flag that was raised by the employee’s absences was the overtime hours accrued by other workers to cover the postal routes. The source says this hit the Wisconsin Rapids Post Office particularly hard because it was already down two employees. The source believes these absences took place for about a five-week period prior to the November 8 elections. The source tells us that the workers “knocked on doors” for the Feingold and Clinton campaigns, meaning they campaigned door to door for the candidates. It is unknown if this practice occurred at any other post offices in Wisconsin.
According to an email obtained by Media Trackers, the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel are investigating the practice and the Postmaster General is cooperating with investigators. Our source tells us that the behavior may violate the Hatch Act, but that is far from clear. The Hatch Act is a federal law that restricts the political activity of federal and Postal Service employees while on duty, on government property, wearing an official uniform, or using a government vehicle. It also prohibits candidates campaigning for election to public office on leased or owned postal property. From the U.S. Postal Service website:
Under the Hatch Act, Postal Service employees may:
- Be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections.
- Register and vote as they choose.
- Assist in voter registration drives.
- Express opinions about candidates and issues.
- Contribute money to political organizations.
- Attend political fundraising functions.
- Attend and be active at political rallies and meetings.
- Join and be an active member of a political party or club.
- Sign nominating petitions.
- Campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments, and municipal ordinances.
- Campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections.
- Make speeches for candidates in partisan elections.
- Distribute campaign literature in partisan elections.
- Hold office in political clubs or parties.
Postal Service employees may not:
- Use official authority or influence to interfere with an election.
- Solicit, receive, or collect political contributions unless both individuals are members of the same federal labor organization or employee organization, and the one solicited is not a subordinate employee.
- Knowingly solicit or discourage the political activity of any person who has business before the agency.
- Engage in political activity while on duty, wearing an official uniform, using a government vehicle, or in any government office.
- Solicit political contributions from the general public.
- Solicit or receive political contributions.
- Be candidates for public office in partisan elections.
- Wear political buttons on duty.
- Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
The practice in question isn’t covered in the USPS guidance to employees on the Hatch Act. But our source believes that the leave of absence practice is “a way around the law.” And our source said the large amounts of overtime accrued over a five-week period could be seen as benefiting candidates for public office. And based on an email we’ve seen, the practice appears to have raised concerns with Postal Service officials.
In another email we obtained, Scott A. Van Derven, President WI State Association of Letter Carriers refers to United States Postal Service management approving “endorsing candidates” but doesn’t mention door knocking:
The names(of the candidates) were approved at the highest level of USPS management.
The endorsed candidates have proven themselves to be in agreement with the objectives that the NALC(National Association of Letter Carriers) hold to strengthen and protect the USPS. That really is the nature of what we’re doing and since the USPS can’t advocate for themselves they are allowing us to do it.
Van Derven did not respond to an email or phone message requesting comment. Media Trackers will continue to follow this story and report further developments as they become available.