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Lawmakers, US agency favor Hatch Act changes

Saturday - 3/24/2012, 7:14am  ET

By LARRY MARGASAK
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Jon Greiner's election to the Utah Senate caused his firing as Ogden police chief. Philadelphia transit cop Matthew Arlen was barred from a local school board race in Pennsylvania. And New York state port official Terrence Hurley was knocked out of a county race.

All were blindsided by a 1939 law that prohibits federal employees from running in partisan elections but also places the same restriction on state and local government workers whose jobs are connected to federal dollars.

Three committee chairmen in the Senate and one in the House say it's time to update the Hatch Act. Bills in both houses still would prohibit federal employees from participating in partisan political activities, while ending federal prohibitions on state and local government employees seeking elected office.

The changes are enthusiastically supported by the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act.

"Fixing this broken law will cost taxpayers nothing and will demonstrate respect for the independence of state and local elections," said Carolyn Lerner, who runs the office.

The law is named for its author, the late Sen. Carl Atwood Hatch, a Democrat from New Mexico who served from 1933 to 1949. It was aimed at ending patronage abuses on Depression-era public works projects _ where people were sometimes coerced to work in a campaign as a condition for getting a job, or had to kick back a portion of their pay as a political contribution.  

Kristin DiCenso, an Illinois state worker, said the law prevented her from running for a court clerk's position last year because part of her salary was paid with federal money and because she supervised departments that received federal funds.

"When someone is `hatched out,' it's like a bad word," said the 40-year-old single mother. "I was utterly deflated. It's insanity."

Arlen, the policeman whose partner is an explosives detection dog trained with federal money, said, "How much influence can my dog have over what I could do on the school board?"

Several state and local officials said in interviews they were investigated by the Office of Special Counsel after their opponents filed a complaint.

It's not uncommon for them to be blindsided by the law, no one more than Greiner. The Ogden police chief was fired several months ago after he was found to have violated the law because he was elected to the state Senate in 2006.

Greiner's case, however, shows how loose the connection with federal funds can be.

The ex-chief said he signed a quarterly report for a federal grant to upgrade the police dispatch system _ money that was going to his county, not his department.

"The county said they needed a law enforcement signature and I was the point of contact for the grant. Nobody knew this Hatch thing was even there," Greiner said.

Greiner, who served one four-year term, also was found to be covered under the law because a lieutenant in his department, assigned to a county law enforcement task force, had applied for a federal grant for bullet-proof vests.

"He wasn't working for me," Greiner said. "He was managing two justice assistance grants for the county."

Greiner not only was fired but said he was banned by the federal government from serving as a law enforcement officer in Utah for 18 months, counting from January of this year. State and local agencies have the choice of firing violators or having federal funds withheld.

One provision of the proposed makeover would allow more flexibility in imposing penalties on violators.

Greiner, 60, was backed by the city of Ogden and had been chief for 16 years. He earned $110,000. He said he's now living off a $75,000 severance package.

Legislation to overhaul the 1939 law is being co-sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of Armed Services Committee; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committeeand a subcommittee on the government workforce; and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

In the House, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  The panel's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., favors the changes regarding state and local officials but wants a broader bill, said a spokesman, Ali Ahmad.

Arlen, the officer with the transit agency serving Philadelphia and its suburbs, said he was blindsided by the law when he tried for run for the suburban Pennsbury school board last year.

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