Brien charges his primary opponent was ineligible due to a Hatch Act violation

Sep 27, 2012

Outgoing state Representative Jon Brien, who lost his seat in the September 11 primary to Woonsocket firefighter Stephen Casey, charged today that Casey was ineligible to run to a federal Hatch Act violation. Brien says the violation is based on how Casey is employed by a department that receives federal funding.

Brien handed out copies of a September 21 letter to state Senate candidate Leonidas Raptakis, from the US Office of Special Counsel, that includes this:

It has long been established that an officer or employee of a state or local agency is subject to the Hatch Act if, as a normal and foreseeable incident of his principal position or job, he performs duties in connection with an activity financed in whole or in part by federal funds.

Raptakis, a former state senator, had contacted the Office of Special Counsel to charge that a rival candidacy by Dave Gorman, a Coventry firefighter, violated the Hatch Act.

According to the letter presented by Brien, the office concluded “that Mr. Gorman’s candidacy for Rhode Island state representative was in violation of the Hatch Act.” It also decided to close the file without further action due to “all the relevant facts” — a situation attributed by Brien to Gorman’s loss to Raptakis in the primary.

Brien launched a write-in campaign last week. He says he raised the Hatch Act issue now since he learned Monday of the response received by Raptakis in a seemingly similar situation. 

Joined by his lawyer, Joshua Macktaz, Brien says he plans to file a complaint today with the US Office of Special Counsel. The timeline for vetting that complaint is not immediately clear could be months, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of Special Counsel.

During a news conference outside the federal building in Providence, Macktaz said:

If action is not taken immediately, and by action I mean declaring the results of the September primary invalid, removing Mr. Casey’s name from the ballot and adding Representative Brien’s name to the ballot; and if the Office of Special Counsel eventually rules Mr. Casey ineligible, as we expect they will, not only will this damage the integrity of the November election, but the City of Woonsocket would face the additional cost of a special election, money which the city could certainly use in better ways.

Macktaz says the Woonsocket Fire Department received a federal Homeland Security grant of about $300,000 in January, “the majority of which was allocated to the training of all members of the Woonsocket Fire Department, as well as upgrading the Woonsocket Fire Department communications equipment.”

A spokesman for Secretary of State Ralph Mollis referred calls to the Office of Special Counsel. I’m expecting a call back from spokeswoman for the Office of Special Counsel, and will add her comment when she gets back. Ann O’Hanlon, spokeswoman for the Office of Special Counsel, says the timing for vetting a complaint depends on the office’s backlog and volume of activity. “There could be some delay, sometimes months, in making a determination,” she says.

O’Hanlon says she couldn’t determine if the details presented by Brien constitute a Hatch Act violation:

“The only way a determination of a Hatch Act violation [is made] is if  our office receives a complaint and performs an investigation. An attorney who handles it would look into it. The trigger for Hatch Act is a connection, a duty or connection, to federal funding.

“It’s entirely possible for an agency, a fire department or some other agency, to receive federal funds, but only for some people within that agency or department to actually touch the federal funds, if you will. Those people who do have that connection to federal funding are covered by the Hatch Act; other colleagues of theirs in the department might not because they don’t have any relevance in their job  duties to those funds.” 

Casey couldn’t be immediately reached for comment  says he thinks Brien’s complaint is without merit.

Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox, says Fox is still supporting Casey, the primary winner, since “nothing has changed.” (More here.)

The potential stakes for other legislative candidates could be seen in how former rep Peter Wasylyk, who waged an unsuccessful primary challenge to Rep. Ray Hull, a Providence police officer, listened on the periphery of Brien’s news conference.