Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Julián Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and rumored Democratic vice presidential prospect, violated a law prohibiting federal employees from politicking on the job when he commented on the presidential election in an April interview with Katie Couric, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Monday.
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, praised Hillary Clinton as the “most experienced, thoughtful and prepared candidate for president that we have this year” and described Donald Trump as unfit for the office in an interview with Couric for Yahoo News on April 4.
The special counsel found that those remarks violated the federal Hatch Act because Castro had given the interview in his “official capacity” as HUD secretary, OSC’s Carolyn N. Lerner wrote to President Barack Obama in a letter referring the counsel's findings "for appropriate action."
The report, dated June 24, notes that Castro told Couric he was “taking off my HUD hat” before he made his comments on Clinton and Trump. Still, the OSC concluded that his “statements during the interview impermissibly mixed his personal political views with official agency business,” given that he also discussed HUD initiatives over the course of the 18-minute conversation, according to Lerner’s letter.
Specifically, the report says, Castro’s comments “violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using one’s official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the result of an election.”
According to the report, Castro testified that he believed at the time of the interview that his comments were in line with the law and never intended to violate it. He has since “reconsidered this position” on the appropriateness of the remarks and said he is “confident no similar blurring of roles will occur in the future,” the report says.
“I now have watched the recording of the interview and appreciate that, while my intention was to avoid any blurring of roles and make clear that I was not speaking as a representative of HUD, that fact may not have been obvious to viewers,” Castro said, according to the report.
Castro, a campaign surrogate for the presumptive Democratic nominee, is viewed as a possible running mate for Clinton in November, with news outlets reporting that he met with her as recently as Friday. Lerner’s letter to Obama suggested that the OSC’s report on Castro “offers an opportunity to deter violations by reminding federal employees of the Hatch Act’s restrictions.”
As Obama himself campaigns on behalf of Clinton ahead of the general election, his administration has attempted to project some distance from the presidential race, going so far as to prohibit Cabinet members from speaking at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden are beholden to the Hatch Act’s limits on partisan advocacy, but members of the Cabinet are, meaning they must keep their agency work separate. Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama Administration’s former health and human services secretary, was similarly found in violation of the law in 2012 for making “extemporaneous political remarks” in a speech while traveling on government money, which she later paid back.
The OSC report indicates that it investigated Castro’s comments in response to a complaint filed on April 11, shortly after he gave the interview with Couric.
Amelia Chassé, a spokeswoman for America Rising, a conservative political action committee, confirmed in an email that the group did not file the April 11 complaint, although it has “filed FOIAs aimed at discovering whether Secretary Castro used official resources for political campaigning/travel.”
Critics of Castro were quick to respond to the OSC’s report on Monday. Tom Mechler, the Texas Republican Party chairman, released a statement from the party’s national convention in Cleveland calling for “an immediate investigation” into Castro’s campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire on behalf of Clinton. In the statement, Mechler also claimed that the secretary’s actions should “prevent him from becoming a Vice Presidential candidate.”
Matthew Whitaker, a Republican and the executive director of the watchdog group the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, also released a statement criticizing Castro. The organization wrote both Castro and Secretary of State John Kerry — the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2004 — in January to warn them against mixing political activity with their official administration work, Whitaker said.