At a stop in Radcliffe, US Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he is designating 18 counties as primary natural disaster areas making them eligible for loans.
Des Moines Register
A federal watchdog agency has concluded that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue violated the law in advocating for the reelection of President Donald Trump during an August official visit to North Carolina.
The news came as Perdue was visiting Mason City and Ankeny on Thursday to make an announcement on new grants to promote the use of ethanol — a key issue for farmers in Iowa, a hotly contested state in the presidential race.
The Office of Special Counsel called on Perdue to reimburse the government for costs associated with his participation in the North Carolina event.
Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge called Perdue’s visits “election-eve stunts” designed to gain favor in rural states.
“Secretary Perdue should absolutely pay back the taxpayers, but he should also just plain know better,” said Judge, who co-founded Focus on Rural America, a nonprofit group of Democrats that has been critical of Trump.
Perdue during Thursday’s trip announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture would provide retailers in 14 states, including Iowa, $22 million in grants to upgrade fuel pumps so consumers would have improved access to higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel — major Iowa agricultural products. As part of his trip, he visited a Casey’s gas station and convenience store in Ankeny, as well as an ethanol production facility in Mason City.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks on Stolee farms after touring the facilities conservation efforts with Republican Senator Joni Ernst, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Radcliffe. Perdue announced that he is designating 18 counties as primary natural disaster areas enabling farm operators to apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency. Farmers will have eight months to apply for the emergency loans. (Photo: Brian Powers/The Register)
The Hatch Act prevents federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. The Trump White House has been dismissive of alleged violations of the act by other administration figures and the president himself.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Politico in late August that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about Hatch Act concerns that were raised during the GOP nominating convention, when figures including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made political speeches and Trump used the White House for his acceptance speech. The White House also declined to act on the Office of Special Counsel’s calls last year to fire then-senior presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway for being a “repeat offender” of the Hatch Act. Conway has since left the White House.
The Office of Special Counsel said it is permissible for Perdue to refer to the president’s actions and how the administration is helping American citizens. But in North Carolina, he also chose to a make a case for the president’s reelection and encouraged those in attendance and watching remotely to support Trump’s reelection.
“While Secretary Perdue has an unquestioned First Amendment right to campaign for the president on his own time and in his personal capacity, he has no such right to do so in his official capacity and at taxpayer expense,” wrote Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the watchdog’s Hatch Act unit. The letter was addressed to an official of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private advocacy group that filed a complaint against Perdue for his statements in North Carolina.
The USDA did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Galindo-Marrone said the department has defended Perdue by saying that he did not encourage attendees to vote for a candidate or party. Instead, Perdue predicted future behavior based on the president’s focus on helping “forgotten people” and “farmers who were suffering.”
“We’ve never seen an outpouring of compassion like that for people who matter, because people matter to you,” Perdue said of Trump. “And that’s what’s important to me. And that’s what’s gonna continue to happen — four more years — if America gets out and votes for this man, Donald J. Trump,” Perdue said, prompting those in the crowd to chant “four more years.”
The Office of Special Counsel said it would close its file on the matter once Perdue provided documentation of his reimbursement to the federal Treasury. It said if he continues to engage in prohibited political activity while secretary, “we will consider such activity to be a knowing and willful violation of the law that will likely result in further action.”
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8457.
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