Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gives brief remarks at the beginning of a news conference about Medicare at HHS June 20, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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(CNN) - The Office of the Special Counsel on Wednesday announced it was citing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for illegally making political comments at an official event, which is a violation of the federal Hatch Act.
The counsel found that she made the comments when delivering the keynote speech at the Human Rights Campaign Gala in February.
After the apparent Hatch Act violation emerged, her office reclassified the trip from official to political and she reimbursed the government for associated expenses.
The law prohibits most federal employees from "engaging in political activity while on duty," according to the special counsel, but some officials, such as cabinet secretaries, are permitted to make political statements in their personal capacity. The Office of Special Counsel is an independent government agency which can investigate and prosecute.
The counsel found that "the Secretary departed from her prepared outline" when she told attendees at the event, "it's hugely important to make sure that we reelect the President and elect a Democratic governor here in North Carolina."
In a seven-paragraph email to the special counsel's office, Sebelius concluded that "I regret making statements that converted my participation in the event from official to political. As I have also explained, keeping the roles straight can be a difficult task, particularly on mixed trips that involve both campaign and official stops on the same day. Since this incident, I have met with the ethics attorneys at the Department to ensure that I have an accurate understanding of what types of statements are prohibited at an official event."
In her letter, Sebelius took issue with the special counsel pursuing the "minor" issue to this point, rather than considering it rectified when the trip was reclassified and expense repaid.
"I believe that you should have concluded that any violation was corrected when the event was reclassified as political," she wrote. "I believe that you should have concluded that the consequence of my going 'off script' at an official event was to change the nature of my appearance for cost reimbursement purposes only."
A HHS spokesman issued a statement which made no mention of the secretary's regret.
"The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) released its findings today on extemporaneous remarks made by the Secretary on February 25, 2012 at a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) event," a statement from a HHS spokesman read. "As was previously announced and at the direction of the Secretary, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reclassified the event as political and the U.S. Treasury was reimbursed for all travel expenses."
-- CNN's Kevin Bohn and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report
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