WASHINGTON Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius admits she made a mistake during remarks in February that investigators say violated a federal law restricting the political activities of government employees.
Sebelius, who is spearheading the implementation of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law, warned at a meeting of the Human Rights Campaign that progress made on gay and lesbian rights under Obama could be "wiped out in a heartbeat" if the president was not reelected in November.
She also called for the election of a Democratic governor in North Carolina. Human Rights Campaign represents people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
"Secretary Sebelius violated the Hatch Act by making extemporaneous political remarks," investigators with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded in a report that referred the case to the president for "appropriate action."
The findings are unlikely to lead to disciplinary action against Sebelius but could provide fodder for Republicans, who vehemently oppose the Democratic Party's embrace of homosexual rights issues, including gay marriage. Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has vowed to overturn the president's policies, including the health reform law known as "Obamacare."
"The report correctly states that I have acknowledged that the statements that you have identified were a mistake," Sebelius said in a September 7 letter to the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates alleged violations of the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act prohibits most federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty. But those nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate are allowed to do so in a personal capacity if taxpayers do not bear the costs.
Sebelius, a former Democratic governor of Kansas, was appointed by Obama, confirmed by the Senate and sworn into office in April 2009.
A White House official would not say whether the president would take action, but added that Sebelius had acted quickly to rectify the situation and had not been accused of such violations before.
According to investigators, the Department of Health and Human Services promptly reclassified the event as a political activity and reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the expense.
A department official said the Democratic National Committee had paid a $2,500 reimbursement for the cost of the trip.
"This error was immediately acknowledged by the secretary, promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)