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Federal Watchdog: Kellyanne Conway Violated Law With Ala. Political Comments

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WASHINGTON (NBC News) — White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violated a federal law barring government officials from using their authority to influence elections when she advocated "for and against candidates" in last year's high-profile U.S. Senate race in Alabama, the Office of Special Counsel announced Tuesday.

Conway violated the law, called the Hatch Act, on two occasions, the OSC said in a report — when she used television interviews last November and December to express support for Republican candidate Roy Moore, and against Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the special election.

The OSC submitted its report — which references interviews Conway participated in last fall with CNN's "New Day" program and Fox News' "Fox and Friends" program” — to President Donald Trump "for appropriate disciplinary action."

"While the Hatch Act allows federal employees to express their views about candidates and political issues as private citizens, it restricts employees from using their official government positions for partisan political purposes, including by trying to influence partisan elections," the report said. "Ms. Conway’s statements during the 'Fox & Friends' and 'New Day' interviews impermissibly mixed official government business with political views about candidates in the Alabama special election for U.S. Senate."

The report referred to a Nov. 20, 2017, interview with "Fox and Friends" in which Conway, appearing in her official capacity, "discussed why voters should not support Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama special election for U.S. Senate," the report said.

It also referred to a Dec. 6, 2017, interview on CNN's "New Day" in which Conway, appearing again "in her official capacity," talked about why Alabama voters "should support Republican Roy Moore and not Democrat Doug Jones" in the special election. Jones went on to defeat Moore in an upset.

"Both instances constituted prohibited political activity under the Hatch Act and occurred after Conway received significant training on Hatch Act prohibitions," the OSC said in its report. Conway was given the opportunity to respond to the allegations but did not, the OSC said.

The White House hit back against the report, saying that Conway, in her interviews, had merely "expressed the president's obvious position” to prefer people in Congress "who support his agenda."

"Kellyanne Conway did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate," Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told NBC News. "She simply expressed the president's obvious position that he have people in the House and Senate who support his agenda."

"In fact, Kellyanne’s statements actually show her intention and desire to comply with the Hatch Act — as she twice declined to respond to the host's specific invitation to encourage Alabamans to vote for the Republican," Gidley added.

During the Dec. 6 CNN interview Conway said that, "the only endorsement that matters in this race is President Trump's, and when he came out questioning the ideology and the vote of Doug Jones."

Referring to Jones, she said, "He'll be a reliable vote for tax hikes, he'll be a reliable vote against border security, he'll be a reliable vote against national security, against the Second Amendment, against life. He's out of step for Alabama voters, according to the president."

During the Nov. 20 Fox News interview, Conway, unprompted, voiced support for Moore while discussing Trump's tax cuts proposal.

"Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don’t be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts. He's weak on crime, weak on borders. He's strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners," she said. "And Doug Jones is a doctrinaire liberal which is why he’s not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him."

Conway was then asked several times whether she was endorsing Moore, but she didn’t respond to the questions.

Her comments last fall year immediately caught the attention of former government ethics officials.

Walter Shaub, who resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics last July, tweeted after Conway's November appearance that he had filed a complaint with the OSC about the interview. Richard Painter, who served as President George W. Bush’s chef White House ethics lawyer, also said Conway had violated the Hatch Act with her comments.

Conway has previously attracted the attention of government watchdogs: Last February, during an interview with Fox News, Conway plugged the clothing line of Ivanka Trump after it was dropped by Nordstrom department stores. Trump, the president's daughter, is a presidential aide.

The Office of Government Ethics criticized the White House at the time for not disciplining Conway over the matter.

Brendan Fischer, a staff attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, told NBC News last month that Conway violated the act because she was "using her official authority to influence an election."

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