Hatch Act complaints snag East Tennessee law enforcement officials

Two East Tennessee police chiefs and a police lieutenant are facing complaints they violated federal law when using departmental letterhead to endorse a judicial candidate and posing in uniform alongside the candidate for endorsement photographs.

Tazewell Police Department Chief Jeremy Myers, New Tazewell Police Department Chief Ben Evans and New Tazewell Lt. Gary Ruszhowski are accused of violating the U.S. Hatch Act, a 1939 law governing political activities by employees of agencies supported by federal tax dollars.

The law prohibits government employees in the federal executive branch and local government employees of agencies that receive federal funding from using the power of their respective offices to try to sway the electorate.

It specifically bars police chiefs, who are appointed to office by their respective governments, and police employees at agencies that receive federal funds from using departmental letterhead, office space, gear and uniforms for political activity, including issuing endorsements.

Myers and Evans both used departmental letterhead in issuing their respective endorsements of 8th Judicial District Criminal Court judicial candidate Graham Wilson, records obtained by the Tennessee Lookout show.

Myers, dressed in his police chief uniform, appeared alongside Wilson in a campaign endorsement photo obtained by the Tennessee Lookout and posted on Wilson's campaign website.

Evans and Ruszhowski also were dressed in their police uniforms when posing with Wilson for a photograph posted on Wilson's campaign website.

Both police agencies receive federal funds.

The chiefs did not return calls for comment.

Candidate: Violation unintentional

Wilson, who currently works as a prosecutor in the five-county 8th Judicial District, said he was unaware of the Hatch Act's prohibitions when he solicited the police agency endorsements.

"I've seen sheriffs in other races making endorsements," Wilson said.

Sheriffs, who are elected officials, are exempt from the U.S. Hatch Act. Employees of sheriff's offices that receive federal funds are not exempt.

"They agreed to do it," Wilson said of the chiefs and lieutenant. But Wilson added that he would not have sought the endorsements if he knew about the Hatch Act's prohibitions.

"I would never have intentionally violated the rules or asked someone else to do something in violation of the rules," Wilson said.

The complaints against the three law enforcers were filed last week with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act. The agency did not give a timetable for when the complaints would be decided.

Penalties for violating the Hatch Act can include removal from office, the loss of federal funds and fines.

According to the Office of Special Counsel, the purpose of the decades-old law is to ensure "federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion" and government employees aren't coerced or forced into supporting candidates and political cases as a condition of the job.

Wilson is one of three candidates vying for the 8th Judicial District criminal court bench this year after current Judge Shayne Sexton announced he was retiring. He faces attorneys Zachary Walden and Thomas Tabor Jr. in the August election. All three are running as Republicans. There are no Democratic candidates in the race.

The 8th Judicial District includes Campbell, Claiborne, Union, Fentress and Scott Counties.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.