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Watchdogs Examine Pompeo's Election-Year Politics For Law Breaking

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some secretaries of state have decided that representing the United States to the world is a nonpartisan job. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does the job differently. He is breaking taboos and possibly the law by getting involved in election year politics. He has publicly promised the president that he will release more emails from Hillary Clinton's private server, reviving a scandal from 2016. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Pompeo bristles when asked about the sudden push to release more Hillary Clinton emails.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: Releasing emails for the sake of transparency can't possibly be a violation of the Hatch Act. That's a ridiculous question.

KELEMEN: It's a question, though, that former State Department lawyer Austin Evers is asking because he says the Hatch Act is meant to ensure that government agencies are not being used for partisan ends.

AUSTIN EVERS: It is a real law that matters to government employees, and it should matter to the secretary of state, too.

KELEMEN: Evers is with American Oversight, an ethics watchdog. He tells NPR via Skype that his organization has dozens of open records requests pending with the State Department.

EVERS: So it is jarring to hear the secretary of state promise an accelerated timetable for politically advantageous material for his patron, Donald Trump, while continuing to slow-walk documents that might be damaging.

KELEMEN: Like documents related to President Trump's impeachment or government spending at Trump properties. Those are issues that don't come up when Secretary Pompeo makes the rounds on conservative media. But Clinton emails do.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "GOOD MORNING ORLANDO")

BUD HEDINGER: Secretary of State Pompeo, Bud Hedinger. Welcome back to "Good Morning Orlando."

KELEMEN: In this interview on WFLA Orlando, Pompeo was asked about, quote, "anti-Trump or deep-staters" who may be blocking more Clinton emails.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "GOOD MORNING ORLANDO")

POMPEO: It's the duty of every leader to get it moving in the right direction.

HEDINGER: But you don't smell a rat...

POMPEO: I'm pretty confident we'll get...

HEDINGER: You don't smell a rat like I suggested here? I mean, you really think that they're doing the best they can?

POMPEO: You know, there's always people inside of every organization that aren't fully on board on the team's mission.

KELEMEN: Former foreign service officer Desiree Cormier Smith was taken aback.

DESIREE CORMIER SMITH: The fact that he would even entertain a question about rats in the State Department or a deep state I think is offensive. He should have reminded people that the State Department is an apolitical organization made of professional, dedicated and apolitical public servants.

KELEMEN: Cormier says she and her former colleagues take the Hatch Act seriously. She learned about it on her first day when she made the mistake of wearing an Obama T-shirt when she arrived at the airport in Ethiopia to begin an internship. She was kept waiting for hours.

CORMIER SMITH: When they finally realized that I was the intern they were looking for, one of the first things they said was we did not expect you to be the intern because you're violating the Hatch Act with that T-shirt.

KELEMEN: Career employees do get punished for violating the Hatch Act. Austin Evers of American Oversight wants an investigation into whether Pompeo is ordering his employees to violate the law by producing more Clinton emails. The agency that enforces the Hatch Act has agreed to open a case file.

EVERS: The second thing I hope is that every single State Department employee who is being asked to be part of this sees this complaint and recognizes that what they're being asked to do may be illegal and that they say no.

KELEMEN: He says the Clinton emails are just the latest example of Pompeo's partisanship. The secretary also addressed the Republican National Convention while on an official trip overseas. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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