A U.S. immigration judge was slapped with a $1,000 fine and a 30-month debarment from federal service after for "serious violations" of prohibitions against federal employees making political statements by promoting then-presidential contender Hillary Clinton's immigration plan during a 2016 deportation hearing, officials said Monday.
The fine against the now-retired judge Carmene "Zsa Zsa" DePaolo was the maximum possible civil penalty that she faced under the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity and comments in the workplace by federal employees.
An administrative law judge who issued the decision said that the California-based DePaolo's actions while serving as an immigration judge employed by the U.S. Justice Department "merit a considerable sanction given the public nature of her position."
The case stemmed from a March 2016 hearing in a detention facility on California's border with Mexico, where DePaolo, who had been an immigration judge since 1995, was considering the case of a person who was facing deportation and a 10-year bar on re-entering the United States.
At that hearing, which was open to the public, DePaolo said the decade-long ban was "a pretty harsh thing" that Clinton planned to change, provided that "the Senate becomes a Democratic body and there's some hope that they can actually pass immigration legislation," according to officials.
DePaolo also said at the hearing that Republicans "aren't going to do anything about" about immigration policy "if they can help it ... other than trying to deport everybody."
The hearing took place about eight months before Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, lost to Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. And the hearing came just two months before California, the state where the hearing occurred, was sceduled to hold its Democratic presidential primary, a fact noted in the law judge's opinion.
Those comments led the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to file a complaint against DePaolo, claiming that she violated the Hatch Act's prohibitions and had used her authority or influence to interfere with, or affect the result of an election.
"When a federal immigration judge in a public setting uses her position to advocate for partisan campaign outcomes, that's a real problem," said Special Counsel Henry Kerner at the time, when he called for "significant disciplinary action" against her.
Kerner's office is an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency, which is focuses on rules protecting and regulating federal employees.
A hearing on the complaint against DePaolo was held last fall by an administrative law judge.
A ruling was announced Monday by law judge Dean Metry, who took over the case after the death of the first law judge who conducted the hearing.
DePaolo's conduct "raises the specter that this nation's courtrooms are partisan, and that judges consider political platforms when advising litigants," Metry said in his ruling.
"The very nature of her offense politicizes the judiciary and the federal workforce and militates toward a more severe sanction."
Metry said that DePaolo's comments "sends a bad message to subordinates, and possibly instills the notion that political activity is allowed at work."
"If a judge can say it from the bench, what stops other employees from making these statements in this office," Metry wrote.
Kerner, the special counsel, said, "We are very pleased with the outcome of this case and believe the significant disciplinary action imposed against Judge DePaolo is appropriate and warranted."
DePaolo told CNBC that during a hearing on the disciplinary complaint against her last year she argued that "I didn't violate the Hatch Act, I was conducting a deportation hearing."
DePaolo, who records show earned $172,100 as a Justice Department employee in 2017, also said "I believe I was singled out" for disciplinary action.
She declined to comment further, saying she had not been notified by officials about the decision.
Her lawyer, Carol Gillam, did not immediately return a request for comment.
But last year, Gillam said in a press release, "This case stretches the Hatch Act far beyond where any reported case has ever taken it before."
"It seeks to muzzle a hardworking immigration judge from advising deportees of what may happen to them. It is this lawsuit that is being filed for an improper purpose," Gillam said. "Nothing said by Judge DePaolo broke the law. It is hard to imagine this case ever being brought by any federal agency under any other president than the current one, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric has been very well publicized since the day he announced his candidacy."
"President Trump appointed Henry Kerner as the Special Counsel in 2017. The notion that Judge DePaolo could affect a presidential election by telling an undocumented immigrant the facts is absurd."
Kerner's office earlier this year recommended that Trump fire his senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, for "persistent, notorious and deliberate Hatch Act violations" by promoting Trump's relection and the defeat of Democratic candidates in media appearances.
Trump did not fire Conway.