Hatch Act issue stirs U.S. probe of City Hall E-mails raise questions about political pressure - The Buffalo News

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Hatch Act issue stirs U.S. probe of City Hall E-mails raise questions about political pressure

City Hall is facing scrutiny from yet another arm of the law -- this one a federal agency that is investigating a series of e-mails sent by a high-ranking member of the Brown administration directing her employees to work on the mayor's re-election campaign.

The Office of Special Counsel has fielded a complaint related to the e-mails sent in June by Community Services Commissioner Tanya Perrin-Johnson and has begun an investigation, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The investigation seeks to determine whether the e-mails represent a violation of the federal Hatch Act, which, among other things, prohibits employees involved in federally funded programs from using their authority to influence political campaigns.

Perrin-Johnson has retained Joel L. Daniels as her attorney, and he said, "Tanya does a great job for the city. . . . We're confident that she'll be cleared when this investigation is concluded."

Brown's spokesman, Peter K. Cutler, responded to news of the investigation by saying the mayor "does not tolerate anything that would be perceived as coercive in working on his campaign or [employees] volunteering their time."

Cutler declined to say whether Perrin-Johnson was disciplined for sending the e-mails. Brown told the commissioner that it was "an error of judgment on her part" and that he would not tolerate this type of behavior from anyone in his administration, according to Cutler.

The probe represents the fifth investigation of operations at City Hall.

The city's Board of Ethics agreed last week to look at Perrin-Johnson's e-mails to determine whether they violate ethics rules or the City Charter, which has a provision that appears to prohibit the solicitation of civil service-protected employees to work on campaigns. A violation is considered a misdemeanor crime.

Violations of the Hatch Act involve civil, rather than criminal, penalties.

While the Hatch Act is generally associated with federal employees, it has three provisions that relate to local and state employees. They are not permitted to run for public office in a partisan election and are prohibited from using their official authority or influence to affect elections or promote political contributions.

Perrin-Johnson wrote a series of e-mails in June that were sent to about 20 employees in her department.

"Your services are needed minimally 8 hours per week," she wrote in a June 2 e-mail. And not just at a time of their choosing. Perrin-Johnson specified a four-hour shift during the week -- preferably Tuesdays, which is the department's night at campaign headquarters -- and another four hours on the weekend.

If employees could not work on the campaign on a Tuesday or on a weekend, Perrin-Johnson wrote, "please notify myself and Dana Bobinchek at the e-mail above and accommodations will be made for you to make up the time during the week."

In a June 16 e-mail, sent during working hours, Perrin-Johnson wrote: "Hope everyone is enjoying their lunch. Friendly reminder, the Community Services Team is expected to volunteer this evening from 5:00 pm - 9:00 pm at 20 Court Street."

If the Office of Special Counsel, an investigatory federal agency, concludes that the e-mails violated the Hatch Act, it would file a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board. If the complaint is not resolved, it could lead to a hearing before the board with the Office of Special Counsel acting as prosecutor.

If the board upheld the complaint, it has authority to ask the city to fire Perrin-Johnson. If the city were to refuse, it would face the prospect of losing federal funding equal to double Perrin-Johnson's annual salary of $86,226.

Perrin-Johnson is not the only city employee under potential scrutiny. In her e-mails, she copied Bobinchek, who works as a special assistant to the mayor. Bobinchek makes $51,500.

Perrin-Johnson and Cutler previously said they do not consider the e-mails to be coercive or otherwise inappropriate.

In addition to the two investigations of the Perrin-Johnson e-mails, officials are probing City Hall on several fronts:

*The State Police and the Erie County district attorney's office are investigating the financial dealings of one of the mayor's allies, Common Council Member Brian C. Davis of the Ellicott District.

*The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI's government corruption unit are looking at one or more facets of city government. Federal investigators have obtained information related to Davis, the One Sunset restaurant deal, the city's block grant spending and allegations of inappropriate activity related to Brown's re-election campaign.

*Kenneth M. Donohue Sr., inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced last week his intention to audit the activities of the city's two economic-development agencies, Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

*City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo's office also is reviewing the books of Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com

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