For years, flagrant violations of the Hatch Act were rivaled only by “Infrastructure Week” as the grimmest running joke of the Trump administration. But nearly three months after President Donald Trump left office, a former administration official has been formally disciplined for exploiting their position for political purposes—and more could be on the way.
Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump Organization fixture and former event planner, ran afoul of the Hatch Act on multiple occasions during her tenure as public liaison director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but openly dismissed any chance of facing discipline for violating the law.
“Just retweeted this amazing tweet from both of my Twitter accounts—professional and personal,” Patton wrote in a 2019 Facebook post after sharing a meme from a conservative account. “It may be a Hatch Act violation. It may not be. Either way, I honestly don’t care anymore.”
On Tuesday, however, Patton was finally disciplined for violating the ethics law, accepting a settlement from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel that included a $1,000 fine and a four-year ban from serving in the federal government. Patton was also required to admit that she had knowingly violated the law when she recruited residents of public housing to appear in a video championing Trump at the Republican National Convention last year.
Normally, such violations were shrugged off by Trump officials as bureaucratic “oopsies.” But with the election of President Joe Biden, the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board—the government agency tasked with adjudicating cases of potential Hatch Act violations, which sat without a board quorum for the entirety of Trump’s time in office—are beginning to chip at the vast backlog of complaints from the Trump era.
The Office of Special Counsel would not confirm the existence of pending investigations, but said that it is slightly constrained by the timing of complaints that were filed with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“In order for OSC to file a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board, OSC would have had to file the complaint while the subject was still a federal employee,” Zachary Kurz, a spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel, told The Daily Beast. “Otherwise MSPB no longer has jurisdiction.”
But the enormous number of extant complaints submitted to the board—which now number in the thousands—mean that some Trumpworld figures are nervous that they may actually face consequences for violating the Hatch Act.
“Let me put it this way: people are going to wish they’d never tweeted,” texted one person close to the White House.
“Even in an administration marked by a callous disregard for ethics laws, Lynne Patton stood out,” Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the ethics watchdog organization that initially filed the complaint against Patton. “What made her behavior particularly egregious was that she not only used her position for political purposes, she misled and exploited public housing residents for political gain, showing little regard for the people she was supposed to be helping and the ethics rules she was supposed to be following.”
Patton’s actions were far from an outlier in the Trump administration, where senior officials developed a years-long pattern of violating the Hatch Act, mostly with impunity. The Republican National Convention alone presented a tsunami of potential violations of the law, from former acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf hosting a naturalization ceremony during primetime to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to address the RNC from Jerusalem to the location of its closing night on the White House lawn.
In October 2020 alone, CREW found that 16 Trump officials had violated the Hatch Act an astonishing 60 times, including first daughter/senior adviser Ivanka Trump, son-in-law/senior adviser Jared Kushner, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, trade honcho Peter Navarro, and communications director Alyssa Farah—but the administration’s seniormost officials were openly contemptuous of the law, which forbids using a government position or government resources for political purposes.
“Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares—they expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values and they would expect that Barack Obama, when he was in office, that he would do the same for Democrats,” former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows—a onetime stickler for the Hatch Act—told Politico in August, calling concerns by ethics experts “a lot of hoopla.”
Or, as former White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said shortly before the Office of Special Counsel determined that she should have been removed from government service for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act: “Blah, blah, blah… Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”