WENATCHEE — Two candidates for Chelan County sheriff think incumbent Sheriff Mike Harum is responsible for a federal agency investigating them for violations of the Hatch Act.
Harum denies the allegation and says he thinks the Hatch Act should be modified so that it does not affect people running for sheriff races in small communities.
The Hatch Act, which aims to keep federal government employees from participating in partisan political activities, also applies to some candidates running for partisan state and local offices.
“The question is whether the employee has duties in connection with activities that are funded by a federal loan or grant,” said Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of the Hatch Act Unit of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
The outcome of the investigation will determine if Brian Burnett, who is employed as a Chelan County sheriff’s deputy, can legally continue his campaign for sheriff.
A federal investigation into whether candidate Mike Hartnett was in violation of the Hatch Act has been dropped because he resigned from the sheriff’s office this month.
The issue for Burnett is complicated by the fact that officials with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act complaints, say they cannot comment on a case — not its status, not who filed the complaint and not even to confirm or deny if a complaint has been filed.
Hamrick said the only people, outside of her office, who will be notified of the outcome will be the person who filed the complaint and the person the complaint has been filed against.
Burnett said Monday he has not heard of any results in his case.
He said he was notified by a message, left on his voice mailbox at work June 1, that told him he might be in violation of the Hatch Act and that he should call the Office of Special Counsel, located in Washington, D.C, to answer questions. He said he did not return the call but contacted Jim Cline, a Seattle attorney representing the Chelan County Deputy Sheriffs Association.
“I told Brian that I’m pretty comfortable with the thought that this will be cleared up pretty quickly,” Cline said Friday. He said he thinks an employee would only be in violation of the Hatch Act if he or she was in a position that was funded specifically by a federal grant, which is not how Burnett’s position is funded.
Harum offers another opinion. He said he thinks that sheriff’s deputies would be in violation of the Hatch Act if they run for a partisan office because about 40 percent of the sheriff’s budget is made up of federal grants; state grants, which are often pass-through federal grants; and contracts with cities and towns for law enforcement coverage. Cities and towns can have federal grants as part of their budgets.
Burnett, Harum said, is paid out of the sheriff’s overall budget, even though he primarily works in the Chelan area.
The Office of Special Counsel’s website, osc.gov states that the act applies to state and local employees if their jobs are financed “in whole or in part by federal funds.”
Hamrick declined to talk about sheriff races and said officials in her office “look at specific employees’ job duties on a case by case basis.”
She said her office investigates hundreds of Hatch Act complaints a year. Currently, 450 such cases are pending.
Notification of possible violations under the Hatch Act have fueled anger from both Hartnett and Burnett.
“It sounds like it’s a way to get rid of the competition,” said Mike Hartnett, who resigned from the sheriff’s office June 1 so he could concentrate on his campaign. Hartnett received a letter, dated June 3, from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel that said that the office received information that he may have been in violation of the Hatch Act while he was a declared candidate and employed as a patrol sergeant.
“After reviewing this matter, even if the allegations were substantiated, we believe that we would be unable to obtain any meaningful disciplinary action because you retired from your position with the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office,” the letter states. “Therefore, we make no conclusions as to the merits of the allegations and are closing our file without any further action.”
Hartnett said alleged Hatch Act violations had nothing to do with his decision to retire.
Burnett said he thinks Harum was the one who filed the complaints about the Hatch Act and said, “To me, this is a perfect example of why Chelan County needs a new sheriff. This is America and competition should be welcomed and not discouraged.”
Asked if he filed Hatch Act complaints against Hartnett and Burnett, Harum replied, “Absolutely not.”
Harum said he spoke with Cathy Mulhall, Chelan County administrator, about his concerns that sheriff candidates may be in violation of the Hatch Act. That, he said, was because he did not want the county to be hit with penalties, which could mean the loss of federal funding.
Mulhall was out of the office this week and could not be reached for comment.
Both Hartnett and Burnett asked why the Hatch Act allows Harum to run. According to the Office of Special Counsel’s website, an individual holding public elective office is usually exempt from the law.
Burnett and Hartnett also wanted to know if Harum was in violation of the Hatch Act when he ran for sheriff, and lost, in 1998; and when he ran for sheriff, and won, in 2002. Harum said he doesn’t think he would have been in violation back then because federal funding was much less during those years. He noted that it made up 8 percent of the sheriff’s budget in 2002.
He added that he has supported amendments, proposed by the National Sheriffs Association and the Washington State Sheriffs Association, that would amend the Hatch Act so it exempts partisan races in jurisdictions of less than 100,000 people.
Where does all this leave candidate Burnett?
He said he can’t see how candidates for Chelan County sheriff can be singled out when partisan candidates for sheriff in other counties have run while they were deputies and they have not been found in violation of the Hatch Act.
“I am going to continue to run,” he said. “I am not in violation. My counsel from my lawyer was that there was nothing to be concerned about. I am not slowing down.”
Dee Riggs: 664-7147