The Campaign Legal Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit ethics watchdog group, filed a complaint this week with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging Benton violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that restricts political activities by federal employees.
Selective Service System Director Don Benton — the former Washington state senator and 2016 Northwest campaign chairman for Donald Trump — has been accused in a new complaint of misusing his government position for partisan political ends during a recent Republican fundraiser in Hawaii.
The Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit ethics watchdog group, filed a complaint this week with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging Benton violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that restricts political activities by federal employees.
The complaint, first reported by the Washington Examiner, says Benton violated the Hatch Act when he spoke Sept. 21 at the Hawaii Republican Party’s Constitution Day Dinner, a political fundraiser that cost between $200 and $10,000 to attend.
Benton was introduced by his official title at the event and was described as a spokesman for the Trump administration. As he spoke, his title, “Director, Selective Service” was projected on a screen behind him, according to the complaint.
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” … by using his official title while addressing this Hawaii Republican Party event, Mr. Benton violated the Hatch Act. CLC respectfully asks the Office of Special Counsel to investigate Mr. Benton’s actions and seek disciplinary or corrective action as appropriate,” the CLC complaint stated.
In an interview Wednesday, Benton rejected the CLC accusation as without merit and suggested it was part of a campaign to muzzle Trump loyalists.
“Bring on the investigation if there is one. There is nothing to it,” Benton said. “I am not worried in the least.”
Benton said he made clear at the start of his speech that he was speaking in his personal capacity. “I didn’t really even have to say that. I like to err on the side of caution,” he said.
As for his official title projected on a screen at the event, Benton said he was unaware of it. “My back was to it,” he said.
The Hawaii visit was scheduled around official business, Benton said, to promote the Selective Service System’s goal of increasing the percentage of men between the ages of 18 and 26 who are registered with the system in case of a resumption of a military draft. He said he met with officials including Hawaii Gov. David Ige and spoke to veterans’ groups and a high school.
Benton says he also checked with an administration attorney before accepting the invitation to speak at the political event.
Delaney Marsco, legal counsel for ethics at the CLC, said Benton’s excuses do not absolve him of potential Hatch Act violations.
“Going up and saying ‘I am doing this in my personal capacity’ and then having your title on a projector in bright letters behind you — you have not cured the problem,” she said.
Marsco said Benton, as a senior Trump administration official, should have exercised “due diligence” and warned fundraiser organizers not to refer to him by his official government title.
Other Trump administration officials previously have been hit with Hatch Act violations. In March, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway was found in violation of the Hatch Act for a pair of media interviews in which she advocated for the election of Republican Roy Moore in the hotly contested special election for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat.
And last year, White House social-media director Dan Scavino Jr. was found to have violated the law for a post on Twitter advocating the defeat of frequent Trump critic Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan.
If a violation is found, the special counsel’s office forwards findings to the administration to decide punishment, Marsco said. In Conway and Scavino’s cases, each was reportedly “counseled” for their violations.
A pugnacious former state senator from Vancouver, Benton chaired Trump’s campaign in Washington and five other states, including Hawaii.
He has been the subject of controversy before, clashing at times with fellow state lawmakers and drawing scrutiny when he was hired in 2013 for a six-figure job as Clark County’s director of environmental services, a move orchestrated by two Republican county council members.
After Trump was elected, Benton was tapped by the president to be a senior White House adviser overseeing the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency. He was named Selective Service director last April.
The Office of Special Counsel acknowledged receipt of the Benton complaint in an email to Marsco from Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of the Hatch Act Unit, who wrote the office “will open a file” on the subject.