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Attorney General's Opinion Could Upset Local Sheriff's Election
by Ashley Murphy

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Questions have been asked at state level if a sheriff's deputy can legally run for the office of sheriff, and is it permissible for an employee of the department to raise political contributions to run for elected office?

There seems to be a growing consensus that includes an opinion by the Tennessee State Attorney General that it may be unlawful for any employee of a sheriff's office that receives federal funds, including those in Bradley County, to run for political office.

Recently, three Hamblen County sheriff's deputies were fired and two state representatives have been questioned. The controversy surrounds announcements for political office and upcoming elections, but has also been extended to previous election cycles. The sheriff's deputies have been fired for the crime of seeking higher office and it is being questioned if the state representatives violated state or federal laws running for state legislature, while they were still sheriff's deputies. It is an issue affecting sheriff's deputies all across the state, even here in Bradley County.

Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnigan, gave three deputy sheriffs, David Kitts, Ernie Burzell and Roy Rucker the option to resign, but they refused. Jarnigan stated that he would have faced the loss of federal funds if he ignored the Attorney General's opinion and let the men retain their employment. The three deputies in question were fired from their respective positions due to the interpretations of the law outlined below by Attorney General Robert Cooper.

If the county in which deputy sheriffs are prospective candidates operate under the County Sheriff's Civil Service Law of 1974, then one must resign his/her position in employment, otherwise this person would be in violation of Tennessee Code Annotated 8-8-419. A deputy sheriff employed in one county could, however, run for the office of sheriff in their own county or in another county while still employed if the election for that office is nonpartisan.

In addition, the County Sheriff's Civil Service Law of 1974 states that a deputy sheriff, if seeking the office of sheriff, would be prohibited from soliciting money for his/her political campaign. If a person violates this statute, dismissal of employment is mandated.

Based on the federal Hatch Political Activity Act, if a deputy sheriff's position, or duties, are in connection with an activity financed in any way by federal loans or grants, then he/she is prohibited from being a candidate for elective office unless the election is nonpartisan. The Hatch Act also applies even if the employee running in a partisan election is on approved unpaid leave from the department.

Former School Resource Officer Roy Rucker, and former Lieutenant Ernie Burzell, are seeking the Democratic nomination for sheriff. Former Sergeant David Kitts is seeking the Republican nomination for sheriff in neighboring Jefferson County. The same laws and statutes apply, giving Jarnigan ample backing to fire the employees due to the positions that all men previously held being federally funded through loans and grants and the positions they seek being partisan.

The Attorney General's opinion caused State Representative Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell, to question is own running when he engaged in partisan politics while still a deputy sheriff in Knox County. He is also still a deputy sheriff, but on unpaid leave from the Knox County Sheriff's Office. Faulkner is currently seeking legal advice from the the State Attorney General's Office and the federal Office of Special Counsel.

While the Attorney General's opinion was based solely on situations where a deputy sheriff is running for the office of sheriff, the opinion also indicates that the prohibition is very broad against political activity by deputies. That being said, Faulkner could be affected by this matter.

Another state representative, Eric Watson, R-Bradley County, who holds a deputy sheriff position and is also on an unpaid leave of absence, could be impacted as well. While Bradley County hasn't adopted a state law on civil service rules for deputies, the Hatch Act is a federally mandated statute that applies to all counties. Watson was engaged in partisan activities while a deputy sheriff.

State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester, added his own comments about this entire matter stating that Faulkner and Watson "need to choose whether they want to serve the public as state representatives or as sheriff's deputies."

Faulkner has also recently expressed a great interest in running for sheriff in Union County, one reason he was doing research on this issue. However, the Union County race isn't a partisan one.

The question for Bradley County now is how does this effect races in this community? There are currently several candidates running for Bradley County Sheriff who are employed by the Bradley County Sheriff's Office. Those who have retained their employment, but are seeking the position of sheriff, would, by law, be violating the Hatch Act if their direct position or duties are connected to federal funding in any way.