A former White House ethics lawyer says staffers on Pence’s crusade against a Democratic senator could violate ethics laws

  • Vice President Mike Pence launched a tirade against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin for his vote against the Republican tax bill last year.
  • Some of Pence’s staffers tweeted the #JoeVotedNo hashtag at Manchin from their official White House Twitter accounts.
  • Former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter said the staffers could have potentially violated the Hatch Act, which separates political activity from official government business.
  • The vice president’s office rejected such notions, noting that they were spreading the message of the tax law as it is just beginning to take effect.

Staff members of Vice President Mike Pence may have violated the law that separates political activities from official government business, according to a former White House chief ethics lawyer.

Pence went after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin on Wednesday afternoon for voting against the landmark tax reform law signed by President Donald Trump last year.

“I was in WV a few months ago & I spoke to the WV Chamber of Commerce,” Pence wrote on Twitter. “@Sen_JoeManchin was there – & I looked him in the eye and I told him, ‘Joe, the people of the Mountain State are counting on you,’ so let’s ‘get this tax cut done together.’ But #JoeVotedNo.”

[email protected]_JoeManchin is going to keep voting against West Virginia & I think Chuck Schumer & Nancy Pelosi are pretty happy w/ the way he votes,” Pence wrote in another tweet. “But WV needs to let him know that they EXPECT BETTER & they need to let Joe know that WEST VIRGINIA DESERVES BETTER. #JoeVotedNo.”

Pence added several more tweets using the same #JoeVotedNo hashtag and railed against the Democratic senator during a rally later that evening.

“The truth is, they voted to give West Virginia workers a raise,” Pence said. “But the same can’t be said of your other senator. People of the Mountain State, you deserve to know, when it came to cutting your taxes, Joe voted no.”

Manchin, who intends to run for reelection in 2018, responded in a statement later Thursday night, saying “The Vice President’s comments are exactly why Washington Sucks.”

Political groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund parroted he #JoeVotedNo slogan, as did two of Pence’s staffers employed by the Office of the Vice President using their official White House Twitter accounts.

Pence’s press secretary Alyssa Farah wrote on Twitter, “[email protected] thanks @SenCapito for her leadership & support of the President’s tax cuts bill. ‘She put West Virginians first’ – & reminds the audience @Sen_JoeManchin voted no. #JoeVotedNo.”

Jarrod Agen, Pence’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, tweeted the same #JoeVotedNo slogan while linking to an article recapping the vice president’s tirade against Manchin.

The tweets from official White House accounts could constitute Hatch Act violations

But using their official White House Twitter accounts was a mistake and potentially illegal, according to Richard Painter, who served as the White House chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.

“If they want to use a personal capacity account or an RNC account, they can endorse whatever candidate they want. They can trash the Democrat all they want to do,” Painter told Business Insider in a telephone interview. “But they cannot use official capacity accounts to attack a candidate as a candidate.”

While the political action committees repeating Pence’s slogan is out of Pence’s staffers’ control, Painter’s main point was that going after Manchin for his past voting record on a bill that is already law is inherently political.

“First of all, the bill is already the law,” he said. “So the fact that he voted ‘no’ is only really relevant for political purposes, right – to defeat him in an election.

“So there’s no official capacity reason for anyone to be talking about how Joe voted,” Painter added. “If it were last October or November, you could have an official reason to have an official hashtag ‘Joe should vote yes’ or ‘Joe should not vote no.’ But the point is it’s now the law – the tax plan. So it’s clearly, #JoeVotedNo is a political hashtag. There’s no way you can get around that. There’s no official reason to have it.”

In an email statement, Farah wrote, “It is absolutely ridiculous to suggest that it violates the Hatch Act to merely state how a sitting U.S. Senator voted on a piece of legislation that’s still going into effect.”

“Richard Painter is well aware of this, but that hasn’t stopped his pattern of launching unfounded attacks on anyone affiliated with the Trump Administration to get booked on cable news,” Farah added. “Senator Manchin voted against tax cuts for West Virginians and we’ll continue to highlight how President Trump’s pro-growth policy agenda is helping hardworking Americans across the country.”

In addition, an administration official confirmed that both Farah and Agen are commissioned officers, which exempts them from certain areas of the Hatch Act. Commissioned officers can engage in broad policy discussion with certain political action groups, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee.

The Office of the Special Counsel has yet to receive a formal complaint on Pence or his staff going after Manchin, according to a spokesperson.