Physician Fired for Political Activity Under Law Little Understood by VA Staff

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Physician Fired for Political Activity Under Law Little Understood by VA Staff

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Washington – A VA physician in Phoenix was recently terminated for violating the Hatch Act, a 70-year-old statute governing how and when a federal employee can engage in political activity. While such terminations are relatively rare, many federal employees, including health-care providers, may lack general understanding of the law and the potential consequences for violating it, according to union officials and others.

In 2007, John Bagdade, MD, an endocrinologist at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, forwarded a fundraising e-mail from a staffer for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to his bosses and numerous other staff members. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigates potential Hatch Act violations, filed a complaint for disciplinary action against Bagdade. After investigating, they determined that Bagdade had sent not only sent that e-mail, but also another similar one.

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The OSC forwarded his case on to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which ruled that he should be fired. Bagdade appealed but was denied. With his last day April 1, Bagdade became only the fourth federal employee during the last two years to be fired for Hatch Act violations.

During the appeals process, Bagdade’s attorney asserted that his client did not understand what laws he was violating when he forwarded the e-mails. This ignorance of Hatch Act regulations is not uncommon among federal employees, said Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal employees. “The regulations of the Hatch Act are fairly intricate, and probably most federal employees know nothing about it.”

Most probably know they can’t run for office, and some might understand that they are not to do fundraising for partisan political candidates. However, most are vague on the exact details of the law, Morrow said.

One of Morrow’s tasks at AFGE is to follow Hatch Act cases around the country. Most are cases of employees making offhand comments or perhaps sending an e-mail to four or five people. Most of these result in warnings or suspensions of several months. Few end in termination.

Bagdade is a special case, however, Morrow noted. “In the case of this VA doctor, there was fundraising involved. And that takes things to a higher level.”

In this case, the law actually calls for termination. That Bagdade was fired was not surprising, considering the content of the e-mail and the way the law was written, Morrow said.

While AFGE followed the case in Phoenix, Bagdade did not ask for union representation, according to Morrow.

The Hatch Act, sponsored by Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico, was passed in 1939 after a controversy involving the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and allegations that workers had been used by local Democratic Party politicians during the 1938 congressional elections. It has been unsuccessfully challenged on free-speech grounds, and there have been several attempts by Congress to alter it, including in a 1990 Congressional bill that was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush.

A number of advisories describe in detail what federal employees can and cannot do under Hatch Act rules, including one put out by the OSC that can be found online at http://www.osc.gov.

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