A 70-year-old law enacted to stop political corruption prevents civil servants who receive federal funds from running for office. With the amount of stimulus money being pumped in from Washington, the antiquated law needs an overhaul.
The year was 1939. The American economy, finally beginning to crawl out from under the malaise of the Great Depression, was rife with political corruption. Buying votes, offering bribes, promising jobs, intimidation tactics and pressure to use public funds for political gain were all common practices in the halls of government. Something had to be done.
The solution: A 55-page election reform act. Sen. Carl Hatch, a New Mexico Democrat, pushed for the legislation that now bears his name — the Hatch Act. It was intended to once and for all do away with political patronage, and it largely succeeded.
Fast-forward to 2009.
While it was well-intended and much-needed, a provision of the legislation has become a modern-day problem. The act states that civil servants at federal, state and local levels who receive federal money — be it a paycheck, a grant or any other type of funding — cannot run for political office. Even officials who administer a project run with federal funds are barred from seeking elective office. To run for political office, they would have to step down from their civil service positions.
With federal stimulus money being pumped into our economy, more civil servants are receiving, overseeing or administering such funding, and fewer of them will be able to run for public office.
In Steuben County last year, the U.S. Office for Special Counsel found both candidates for county sheriff — Undersheriff David Cole and Chief Deputy Joel Ordway — in violation of the Hatch Act because they were involved with operations that supported by federal funds, including drug investigations. Both were forced to resign their positions to continue their campaigns.
The act could likewise affect this year’s Wayne County sheriff’s election, where all three candidates may have been on the receiving end of federal funding.
Barry Virts, head of the county jail, vows to resign to carry on his campaign, if need be. Palmyra Police Chief David Dalton believes he’s in the clear, even though his municipality has received equipment and surveillance grants. Wayne County road patrol deputy Terry Pickett may also have a decision to make, if he has received even one penny of roadblock pay or worked on a federally funded project.
It is possible that all three candidates could fall under the Hatch Act, said Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C., which handles Hatch Act cases.
If that were the case, who would be left — with any experience in law enforcement — to run for sheriff?
We fail to see how an officer who wears a federally funded bullet-proof vest, for example, would have a conflict of interest in seeking an office at the village, town or county level, where the issues are local and the revenue comes almost entirely from state and local taxes.
We’re not suggesting the government ditch the Hatch Act. But the legislation needs to be reformed to fit today’s stimulus-infused environment, lest it do exactly the opposite of the law’s intent: Prevent experienced, well-qualified and honest candidates from seeking public office.