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By Collin Breaux and Lillian Boyd
San Juan Capistrano City Council candidate Howard Hart is halting campaign activity as federal officials investigate an allegation from political opponent John Alpay that he violated the Hatch Act. A candidate forum originally scheduled for Oct. 6 has been postponed indefinitely, and Alpay has subsequently lost at least one endorsement.
The Hatch Act of 1939, An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, is a United States federal law that, in general terms, prohibits civil service employees in the executive branch of the federal government from engaging in some forms of political activity. Alpay’s complaint asserts that because Hart is an employee for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency—and because Alpay had received endorsements from the Libertarian Party—Hart is violating the Hatch Act by running in a partisan election.
Some experts, however, say city council elections are traditionally nonpartisan. Alpay alleges his own acceptance of a political party endorsement makes the race partisan and means Hart is in violation.
“California local elections are largely nonpartisan because of a historical desire to limit political party participation in local government,” said Beth Rotman, Director of Money in Politics & Ethics for Common Cause. “These nonpartisan schemes are seen as a means to more efficient and responsive local governments, meanwhile eliminating a perception that political party bosses and party operators could control or even potentially corrupt local government.”
Common Cause is a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization that works toward transparency and accountability in government.
Complaint Filed to Office of Special Counsel
Alpay’s complaint was submitted to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on Sunday, Sept. 27. Pending a determination of the allegation, Hart is now ceasing campaigning activities. Alpay originally received endorsements from both the Libertarian Party of Orange County and the Libertarian Party of California—however, the endorsement from the state party has since been deemed null and void.
Alpay said Hart’s current employment as Regional Training Administrator for the Department of Homeland Security unmistakably subjects him to the federal Hatch Act, which stipulates that no current Executive Branch employee can run for office in a partisan election.
State Libertarian Leaders Vote Against Endorsement for Alpay
On Monday, Oct. 5, the Libertarian Party of California’s Executive Committee (EC) met to discuss Alpay’s endorsement for a second time. While the meeting was initially called in light of Alpay allegedly violating the non-aggression certification, which requires that members “oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals,” Chair Mimi Robson wanted to clarify a snafu in records of Alpay’s voter registration.
On Sept. 12, the EC endorsed a number of candidates, including Alpay.
“At the time of the meeting, I was under the misguided impression that Mr. Alpay, who had been registered No Party Preference in the State of California, had changed his registration to Libertarian and was qualified for our endorsement,” said Robson.
Robson says she later learned Alpay was not registered as a Libertarian and contacted him for proof of his change of registration. He then submitted proof of the change that was made on Sept. 18.
“So when I announced to the EC that he was up for consideration, I stated the issue with registration has been remedied,” Robson said. “This was solely my mistake.”
Because Alpay was not registered Libertarian at the time of the EC’s vote to endorse him, the endorsement is subsequently null and void, Robson explained. Rather than voting to rescind the endorsement Monday evening, the EC was tasked once again on deciding on an endorsement for Alpay.
Christa Hart, a representative of the Hart campaign and daughter of Howard Hart, spoke during the public comment portion of the EC meeting in defense of her father.
“For myself and my family, it feels as if we are simply in Mr. Alpay’s way to what he perceives as all important political power,” Christa Hart said. “He has no consideration for the victims of his unethical uses of the law. And let’s be clear, legality does not always predicate morality.”
Ultimately, the EC voted against the endorsement for Alpay.
“The Chair showed leadership by readily taking ownership of the error,” Alpay said. “I am grateful that the Executive Committee acknowledged that I sought the endorsement in good faith, did not violate any party principles and remain in good standing with the party.”
Hart’s participation in the city council election is now contingent on whether the Libertarian Party of Orange County (LPOC) will rescind their endorsement of Alpay.
David Naranjo, chair for LPOC, told The Capistrano Dispatch that voting members would likely decide on Alpay’s endorsement privately, as opposed to the state party EC’s more public Zoom meeting.
Since Alpay’s complaint, Hart has removed campaign signs and disabled campaign accounts on social media. Hart said he informed OSC of the Libertarian Party of California’s decision, and as of press time was waiting on a decision from LPOC.
“The fact that (the OSC is) waiting for LPOC suggests that their decision is germane to the ruling,” Hart said.
OSC Communications Director Zachary Kurz said the agency cannot comment on or confirm whether they have any specific open Hatch Act investigations.
“Once an investigation is complete, OSC’s findings are typically provided to only the complainant and the subject of the complaint,” Kurz said.
The matter is about the residents of District 5 and whether San Juan voters have the right to participate in the democratic process of choosing their own government, Hart said. The race is for the District 5 seat currently held by Brian Maryott, who is running in the 49th Congressional District race against incumbent Rep. Mike Levin.
“This is a crucial time in the election cycle, and we hope for a resolution soon,” Hart said. “This is about people who have hosted and attended meet-and-greets on my behalf; it’s about the over 100 people who have donated to my campaign; it’s about those who have spent hours leaving door hangers, making phone calls, and placing signs.”
Alpay said he is raising a legitimate concern about Howard Hart’s conduct and qualifications.
“Howard Hart should assume personal responsibility for his actions. . . Howard Hart has the sole ability to eliminate any concerns about the Hatch Act in this race by removing himself from government service or simply stepping out of the race,” Alpay said. “This is not a personal attack on the Hart family.”
Alpay says that now that his knowledge is public, Hart’s efforts to undercut legitimate endorsements exposes his continued campaign efforts in disregard for the law.
Attorney with Government Watchdog Group Questions Basis for Violation
In an email, Rotman with Common Cause told The Capistrano Dispatch that an endorsement should not have any bearing on whether a local election becomes partisan.
“While parties may still endorse candidates in most nonpartisan elections, some voters believe this defeats many of the goals of nonpartisan systems,” Rotman said. “Some localities have even amended their state constitutions to prohibit endorsements.”
However, Rotman concluded that an individual receiving an endorsement does not transform a nonpartisan election into a partisan one.
All five sitting councilmembers have endorsed Hart, including Mayor Troy Bourne, who said the situation threatened a regression to previous city government dysfunction, at a time when civility and decorum had been restored to council meetings.
“I think the lens most of the city is seeing this through, in my opinion, is that a technical infraction is being taken advantage of to remove the voters’ power in this election, and I think the reason that that is the perception is, when did Mr. Hart break the rules?” Bourne said. “It feels like Mr. Hart checked the rules, asked for opinions and walked onto the field to play with the best of intentions, and then somebody drew a line behind him and accused him of crossing the line after the fact.”