Some Democrats, furious with FBI Director James Comey for putting the issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails back in the public eye just before election day, are suggesting he has violated legal restrictions against federal employees trying to affect the outcome of an election, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Legal analysts said that would be a high bar to clear and that based on what is known about Comey’s motives, there’s no evidence he was trying to influence the presidential election. That doesn’t mean he should get too comfortable in his job if Clinton wins. “If Hillary is elected, he is gone,” predicted Laurie Levenson, a professor of legal ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
The federal law in question is the 1939 Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their authority or influence “for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.” On Friday, Comey notified Congress in a vaguely worded letter that the FBI was looking into additional emails found on a computer used by the estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. The announcement was apparently premature — federal agents had not yet seen any of the emails — but the FBI obtained a search warrant and said agents examining the messages yesterday looking for any signs that the emails contain classified material. “There’s no indication that he was intending to interfere with the election,” said Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode, who also teaches legal ethics. “Where he failed, from an ethical standpoint, was in failing to say he had no evidence of wrongdoing … instead of leaving it open to political spin.” Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said in the New York Times that Comey’s intent to influence the election could be inferred from the circumstances of his disclosure, including its timing and the continuing demands by Republicans for action against Clinton.