Congress

New Jersey Democrat wants review of whether Pompeo’s Kansas trips violated law

A Democratic senator wants a federal watchdog to determine whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trips to Kansas have violated a law that restricts campaign activities by executive branch employees.

In a Tuesday letter, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez asked the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency, to review whether Pompeo’s trips to the state violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that limits the campaign activities of most federal employees, including cabinet secretaries.

“For months, public reports have persisted that the Secretary was considering running for U.S. Senate in Kansas. Many in Kansas perceive his appearances in the state to be a de facto campaign effort,” wrote Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a question about the letter.

Pompeo has traveled to Kansas four times since Republican Sen. Pat Roberts announced his plans to retire at the end of his current term. Last week’s trip saw him tour a Textron facility with Ivanka Trump and meet privately with Wichita State University’s basketball team.

Pompeo also met with billionaire Charles Koch, a longtime political benefactor, and reportedly discussed the Senate race, Menendez noted in his letter.

Menendez pointed to an editorial in The Kansas City Star calling for Pompeo to either focus on his official duties or resign.

“And following his trip, the Department of State’s official twitter handle posted a workforce and Kansas-centric video montage of the Secretary’s visit, which appears to have no nexus to the Department’s official work,” Menendez said.

In an interview with The Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star, Pompeo brushed off the Senate speculation his visit had generated.

“I think I’ve answered this question. I think this is number 103 or 104 times,” Pompeo said when asked about the Senate race.

Menedez’ letter notes that in the same interview Pompeo shrugged off a question about the ongoing House impeachment inquiry by attempting to steer the conversation to Kansas workforce development.

Pompeo’s trip to Kansas, which also included a family friend’s wedding, meant that the secretary was not present in the White House situation room when the U.S. military killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a Saturday raid.

Pompeo said Monday in an interview on Fox News that he had been in communication with other administration officials in the lead-up to the mission and spoke with his Russian counterpart on Saturday to ensure cooperation in the raid.

The Office of Special Counsel determined in June that White House adviser Kellyanne Conway had violated the Hatch Act by criticizing Democratic candidates in her official capacity and recommended her firing.

Menendez’ letter notes that President Donald Trump’s administration ignored the advice. He argued that past Hatch Act violations by the administration make it more urgent to determine whether Pompeo’s activities in Kansas had crossed the line.

“Secretary Pompeo is not any federal employee. Rather, he is one of the most prominent members of the President’s cabinet. He appears frequently on TV and for interviews, and, as is true for many Secretaries of State, is known and recognized by the American public,” Menendez said.

“Thus, it is even more crucial that he and the Department maintain a clear line between his actions as a federal employee and steward of the U.S. government, and any efforts that could be perceived as political in nature or laying the groundwork for potential campaign activity.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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