By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee voted 25-16 on Wednesday to subpoena testimony from White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway after she failed to appear at a hearing about her alleged violations of the Hatch Act, a law that limits federal employees’ political activity.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a U.S. government watchdog agency, earlier this month recommended Conway be fired for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.
Consistent with a pattern of stonewalling numerous congressional investigations of President Donald Trump, his administration and business interests, the White House has asserted that Conway did not need to testify to the committee.
Henry Kerner, who runs the Office of Special Counsel, said at the committee hearing that Conway left him “no choice” but to recommend her termination because she has committed “at least 10 separate Hatch Act violations, expressed no remorse and continues to express disdain” for the law.
Kerner is a Trump appointee who previously worked for Republican lawmakers in Congress. His office is an independent agency that enforces the Hatch Act. It is not connected to the office of former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Representative Jim Jordan, the committee’s top Republican, said Democrats were seeking to limit Conway’s free speech rights because they disagreed with her views and because she has been an effective advocate for the president’s agenda.
Some Democratic lawmakers said the hearing was an example of Republicans letting their loyalty to Trump interfere with upholding the rule of law.
“Our Republican colleagues are so busy trying to defend the Trump administration, even when there are 25 violations of federal law, that we are basically giving away our power,” said Elijah Cummings, the committee’s chairman, after the hearing.
Kerner testified that his concerns about Conway could also be addressed by her formally becoming an adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign, rather than a White House employee.
Kerner’s report on June 13 criticized Conway for a “pattern of partisan attacks” on Democrats running for president, including a media interview where she insinuated that Senator Cory Booker was “sexist.”
An earlier OSC report from March 2018 cited Conway for favouring a Republican candidate over a Democrat in an interview discussing a special Senate election in Alabama in 2017. The White House said she was only expressing Trump’s preference.
In a June 11 letter, the top White House lawyer said the OSC has adopted an “overbroad and unsupported interpretation of the Hatch Act,” that chills the free speech rights of U.S. government employees.
The White House’s letter also accused Kerner’s team of bias against Conway, saying they recommended her termination because they felt disrespected by public comments she made about the OSC.
The OSC can make such recommendations, but does not have the authority to enforce them.
Cummings said the committee could sue to enforce its subpoena and force Conway to testify.
“We will do whatever we have to do, using every tool that we have available, as we would with any subpoena now, to get her in,” Cummings said.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bill Berkrot and G Crosse)