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HUD official on ethics law: 'I honestly don't care anymore'

When federal officials declare their indifference to legal limits, there's a problem.
Lynne Patton, event planner and Head of Region II for HUD during a press conference at the Jacob Javits Federal Building, January 31, 2019 in New York City.
Lynne Patton, event planner and Head of Region II for HUD during a press conference at the Jacob Javits Federal Building, January 31, 2019 in New York City. 

When it comes to personnel decisions, Donald Trump "prizes relationships and loyalty over traditional qualifications." He's spent much of his presidency proving the point.

Trump wanted his physician to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. He tapped his personal bankruptcy lawyer to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Trump's former golf caddy became the White House social media director. Trump's former bodyguard oversaw "Oval Office operations." The president even considered his pilot to lead the FAA.

And then, of course, there's Lynne Patton, a Trump family "event planner" who organized Eric Trump's wedding, whom Trump tapped for a senior position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, helping oversee federal housing policy for New York and New Jersey.

Patton has proven to be controversial for a variety of reasons, though last week the HUD official made headlines for an entirely new reason. Her boss, Secretary Ben Carson, had just embarrassed himself during congressional testimony, reminding everyone how little he knows about housing policy.

Patton apparently thought it'd be a good idea to defend him.

Defending Carson from his post-gaffe criticism, Patton retweeted a message that praised the HUD director and made a joke at the expense of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.She then posted on Facebook on May 22 that her comment "may be a Hatch violation. It may not be. Either way, I honestly don't care anymore."

"I honestly don't care anymore" is one of those unfortunate sentences that captures a much larger problem.

In context, Patton's reference to "a Hatch violation" refers to the Hatch Act, a nearly century-old ethics law that prohibits nearly all federal employees from engaging in political activities. It's a law that some officials close to this president have already been accused of breaking.

And while I'll leave it to experts to assess whether Patton crossed any legal lines, my principal concern is her indifference. The senior HUD official, by her own estimation, realizes there's a law limiting her political activities, but she no longer cares whether her actions are permissible.

"I honestly don't care anymore," she said.

I can appreciate why the Hatch Act may seem obscure and perhaps trivial. Those who break it are not felons, and violators are not subject to prison sentences. When compared to some of the other offenses Donald Trump and his team have been accused of, it's easy to see an ethics law like this one as unimportant -- the practical equivalent of political jaywalking.

But my concern is less about the Hatch Act itself and more about the conditions that allow powerful federal officials to publicly declare their indifference to legal limits.

Donald Trump has already indicated that, in some cases, he believes following the law is optional. The more that sentiment spreads to others in his administration, the larger the scope of the problem.