Already under fire for campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime, Ag Secretary uses USDA email list to promote a pro-Trump Fox Business op-ed

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and President Donald Trump attend an event on the food supply chain during the coronavirus pandemic, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Sonny Perdue waxed poetic about the last four years with the president. Experts say it’s a violation of the Hatch Act.

One day before the Presidential election, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent out a strange email: “ICYMI: President Trump is fighting for our farmers, ranchers, and rural America,” read the subject line. (The acronym stands for “In Case You Missed It”). If the subject line read like campaign propaganda, the body confirmed our suspicions: The email linked to a Fox Business op-ed penned by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, then proceeded to excerpt choice tidbits from the piece. 

During his first term, according to the email, President Trump “virtually repealed the death tax,” also known as the estate tax. He “tackled overregulation,” including gutting the Waters of the United States rule. He played tough with China. He replaced NAFTA. Oh, and farm income is forecasted to hit its highest levels since 2013. (No mention in the email of the tens of billions of dollars in direct payments authorized by the White House that contributed to those forecasts, though Perdue covered that in the op-ed.) 

It’s highly unethical for a federal agency to use its official mailing lists to promote the track record of the Commander in Chief, watchdog organizations say, especially with less than 24 hours to go before a highly contentious election.

“He’s using the imprimatur of his office to help make a closing argument for the president’s reelection to rural America.”

“None of us are stupid, we know exactly what Secretary Perdue is trying to do here,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an independent oversight group, which has complained about Perdue’s campaign activities in the past. “He’s using the imprimatur of his office to help make a closing argument for the president’s reelection to rural America.”

This isn’t the first time Secretary Perdue has been accused of using USDA resources to stump for Trump: In October, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) found that Perdue had violated the Hatch Act—a law that prohibits federal employees from using their official authority to influence election results—when he advocated for the president’s reelection during an August speech in North Carolina.

At the event, meant to promote USDA’s food box program, Perdue called on voters to re-elect Trump for “four more years.” In the case of today’s Fox Business op-ed, Perdue doesn’t explicitly invoke Tuesday’s election—but that doesn’t mean he didn’t cross a line.

“There may be people within USDA that aren’t supporting Trump at the polls. You can see how that might put pressure on them to engage in political activity.”

“Statements that are intended to encourage others to vote for or against a candidate for partisan political office or otherwise promote or disparage that candidate’s campaign are political activity, even where the employee making the statement does not expressly request that others vote for or against a candidate,” wrote Ana Galindo Marrone, head of OSC’s Hatch Act Unit, in a letter explaining the agency’s determination that Perdue had violated the law at the North Carolina event. Perdue was ordered to pay costs related to the event back to the government. (Emphasis by OSC.)

While Perdue is within his rights to express personal political views, using taxpayer-funded resources to share them widely potentially raises red flags.

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“If he wrote this in his personal capacity, that wouldn’t be an issue,” Sherman said. “But the fact that the communications department inside USDA is disseminating it suggests that this was done in his official capacity.”

Today’s email could also infringe on federal employees’ ability to work in an environment without political coercion—one of the reasons that the Hatch Act was passed in the first place.

“There may be people within [USDA] that aren’t supporting Trump at the polls,” Sherman said. “You can see how that might put pressure on them to engage in political activity.”

USDA did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.