[Update 8/14/19: Mesa County Commissioner candidate Janet Rowland pulled this ad from her Facebook page after this article was published].
People are questioning whether an ad that Mesa County Commissioner candidate Janet Rowland recently posted on her campaign Facebook page violates the law.
In the ad, Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster endorses Rowland for commissioner in his capacity as president of CMU, not as a private individual as the law requires. The law says Foster is permitted to make such an endorsement, but ONLY in his capacity as a private individual; he is specifically prohibited from using his position as a state employee for politicking or attempting to influence an election.
The ad appears to violate two separate federal laws: the Hatch Act and the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
Technical guidance issued for state employees by the Colorado’s Division of Human Resources (pdf) on the implementation of these laws states,
“The Hatch Act limits the political activities of individuals employed in state departments and higher education institutions (departments) that have programs financed in whole or in part by federal loans or grants.”
CMU accepts federal funding, thus Foster is subject to both laws.
The guidance further states,
“In general, employees of the State of Colorado may not participate in political activities while on-duty. … The purpose of laws and rules on the topic is to ensure that an individual’s political beliefs can not be interpreted as an official policy, or advocacy, by the State of Colorado.”
The Fair Campaign Practices Act makes the distinction between activities in which a citizen can engage in his or her own time, and activities in which they engage in as an employee of a state-funded department, board, or political subdivision. As long as an employee is acting strictly as a private citizen, no restraints are placed on campaign activities, but an employee who is “on the clock,” or “on the job,” must be very careful not to violate the FCPA.
Whenever Tim Foster acts as President of Colorado Mesa University, he is construed as being “on the clock,” so politicking in this capacity is strictly prohibited.
The state’s guidance is very clear: “Employees may not use their official authority or influence to interfere with an election.”
Foster himself in the past has shown he is aware of these laws. In 2016 he retaliated against a CMU instructor for politicking by using his position as a state employee at the university. Foster suspended assistant professor Stan Heister from his tenure-track position for two academic years after Heister invited a woman from the political advocacy group Work for Progress to recruit students to campaign for 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Experienced Republicans and former legislators like Foster and Rowland must know better. They are almost certainly well aware that they need to avoid even the appearance of violating the Hatch Act and FCPA, but for some reason they’ve decided to blow them off and hope no one will notice.
Well, we noticed.
And, we may add, we’ve also noticed that under the Trump administration, respecting U.S. laws and norms has become a thing of the past. Local politicos seem to be taking their cues from on high.