Considering brain surgeon Ben Carson’s lack of relevant policy experience upon his nomination as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in 2017, he has managed to stay relatively under the radar, as other scandal-plagued cabinet heads have resigned or caught some watered-down version of the president’s catch phrase. But, if the last week at HUD is any indication, that run of good fortune may be running out.
In an appearance last Tuesday before the Democratic-led House Financial Services Committee, Carson mistook a boilerplate real estate term for an Oreo cookie — a slipup that, although inherently harmless, reminded the viral audience of Carson’s inexperience in his appointed field. And this week, department official Lynne Patton found herself under a level of scrutiny normally above the paygrade of a HUD regional administrator. Defending Carson from his post-gaffe criticism, Patton retweeted a message that praised the HUD director and made a joke at the expense of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She then posted on Facebook on May 22 that her comment “may be a Hatch violation. It may not be. Either way, I honestly don’t care anymore.” Patton — who may have previously violated the act for displaying official Trump campaign merch in her office — returned to Twitter to defend herself:
Signed into law by FDR, the Hatch Act prohibits executive branch officials from publicly endorsing elected officials; it is designed to prevent an administration from using federal employees for its own political gain. Employees of Trump’s executive branch have had a hard time following the law. In November 2018, federal investigators determined that six administration officials had defied the act on Twitter by using government accounts to share personal opinions. The administration’s most public violations of the act were committed by Kellyanne Conway in 2017, when she advocated on television for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting underage girls.
Patton’s self-reported possible Hatch violation is not as clear cut as prior Trump administration breaches of the act. The HUD administrator used her personal accounts, and did not endorse a candidate: Her boss is a Cabinet appointee who has already announced he intends to leave after Trump’s first term. (Mocking Ocasio-Cortez may be another matter, however.) But Patton, a Trump family event planner with no policy experience prior to her appointment, shouldn’t expect any formal reprimand, considering past treatments of Hatch violators within the administration. After a federal investigative agency recommended “appropriate disciplinary action” for Kellyanne Conway’s TV support of Roy Moore, the White House went the opposite route and defended its high-profile counselor.