Government employees punch in and out of taxpayer service in run-up to Election Day

By Glen Johnson, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Government employees punch in and out to politick

BOSTON — The state and federal governments may want to place time clocks outside Massachusetts political events in the run-up to Election Day, as staffers punch in and out of their tax-paid jobs on a daily and sometimes hourly basis to campaign for their bosses.

It underscores a legal-but-unique advantage enjoyed by incumbents across the country when they run for re-election: They have a publicly funded infrastructure to rely upon that isn’t available to private-sector, outside candidates.

Employees who get their salary and benefits paid by the government are, in most cases, free to shift to political work as long as they’re on their own time. It’s a distinction that can be hard to see and even harder to police.

This week, the first deputy treasurer and chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts treasury spent more than 90 minutes away from her Statehouse office as she watched her boss, Treasurer Timothy Cahill, participate in a gubernatorial debate in Cambridge. A spokesman later said Grace Lee was on “personal time” at midday Monday.

Three days earlier, that spokesman, David Kibbe, was clapping and cheering for his boss during a 2 p.m. news conference at the Cahill campaign headquarters in Quincy — more than 10 miles from Beacon Hill. “I took personal time Friday afternoon,” Kibbe said in an e-mail.

But it’s not just Cahill and supporters of his independent campaign for governor.

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat scrambling amid a re-election challenge from Republican Sean Bielat, has a spokesman who’s splitting time between his federal and campaign jobs. Harry Gural has two cells phones and two e-mail addresses in an attempt to keep the lines from blurring.

“I am working for and paid by the campaign mostly; I continue to take some congressional calls, though the volume has dropped because Congress has adjourned,” Gural said in an e-mail from his House account.

Katie Joyce, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, approached an Associated Press reporter at a recent debate between her boss and his three re-election opponents. She pre-emptively announced, “I’m on vacation time.”

It was 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the AP spotted Gov. Deval Patrick’s chief of staff, cabinet secretary, communications director and deputy press secretary holding campaign signs outside a Sept. 21 debate. It was 5:50 p.m. on a Tuesday in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, at least a 20-minute drive from the Statehouse in rush-hour traffic.

“We support the governor and often volunteer on our free time on nights and weekends,” said the communications director, Kyle Sullivan, reading aloud a response he drafted on his personal — not governmental — BlackBerry.

Crossing the boundary between legal and illegal campaign activity is not just an issue in Massachusetts.

Pennsylvania has been rocked by a public corruption scandal linked to government politicking. The attorney general’s office has charged 25 people in an investigation into the use of public resources to run political campaigns and for other nongovernmental purposes.

Massachusetts has one of the toughest laws in the country when it comes to employee fundraising. It bans public workers from soliciting or receiving donations for any political campaign, at any time, anywhere in the country.

On the surface, the law is also strict about employee politicking. State workers are banned from using public resources for political purposes, with “resources” including government computers and supplies and an employee’s time. The law is enforced jointly by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the State Ethics Commission.

“If public employees are going to campaign for someone, we advise they do it on their own time,” said OCPF spokesman Jason Tait. “If they are going to do it on a work day, take a vacation or personal day.”

Yet state employees are allowed to use their personal and vacation time in as little as half-hour increments. And that lets them move on and off the government clock as events dictate. Their health insurance, seniority and other benefits of government employment continue unabated, as long as they do not resign or take a leave of absence.

The only way to verify a proper accounting is to examine employee time sheets.

Lee and Kibbe did not immediately respond to a request for their time sheets during the past month. In Joyce’s case, her time sheet showed four hours of vacation on the day of the lieutenant governor debate. The gubernatorial debate attended by Sullivan and other top Patrick aides began after normal business hours — a period not covered by official time sheets.

“Employees need to document their time, and the employment records should reflect that this really is vacation time or personal time,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog. “It’s incumbent on the offices to back that up.”

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