A federal elections law has thrown the candidacies of two men running for Crook County commissioner into question.
>Federal law forces Russ Hanson, Russ Wright to withdraw from the race
The news affects the candidacies of Republicans Russ Wright and Russ Hanson. Wright and Hanson received correspondence from County Clerk Dee Berman and Hanson received an e-mail from County Counsel Dave Gordon regarding the Hatch Act.
Wright works now on a contractual basis for the Crook County Sheriff's Office and Hanson is the director of the Crook County Environmental Health Department.
"The Hatch Act was named after Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and it was enacted in 1989," Gordon said. Hatch is a Republican U.S. senator who represents Utah. "And what it says is that no federal employee can run for a partisan, elective office. And that federal law is made applicable to state and local governments if the agency receives federal funds. Both the sheriff's department and the environmental health department receive federal funds."
"The environmental health department can receive up to a maximum of approximately $62,000 from federal monies," the county counsel said. "And that's for monitoring water delivery systems. Then the sheriff's office receives about $40,000 a year under an Emergency Management Performance Grant."
Berman briefly outlined what would happen in her letters to Wright and Hanson, saying that as Crook County employees in departments that receive federal money, Wright and Hanson "may be subject to the Hatch Act" and not eligible to run for county commissioner, position one.
Hanson also discussed what the change would mean to his candidacy.
"Well, I didn't know about the actual results," Hanson said. "Scott Cooper came in about three weeks ago. He just informed me that somebody had mentioned the Hatch Act in reference to Wright."
Hanson said Gordon later contacted him, saying that the county was researching to determine the federal law's effect "on my individual case."
"But that interpretation still hasn't come back," Hanson said. Additionally, Hanson hired private attorney Jeff Wilson.
"I hired him as a private attorney to see if I was going to fall under it or not," the environmental health director said. "Because I wanted to beat the deadline. I didn't want to be on the ballot if I wasn't eligible."
Hanson said he did not believe it was fair to the public to have his name on the May ballot if he was not eligible to run.
"Yeah, it's costly to the Clerk's Office to have all those ballots with my name on them," Hanson said. "It would just create too much confusion if our names are on the ballot and we can't run."
Hanson said if the federal interpretation comes back that he can run, he will run as a write-in, adding that he still has many citizens who would like him to run.
"I can't even run under the Hatch Act as a write-in. I have to be non-associated with the county," Hanson said.
But at this point, he has dropped his candidacy, except possibly as a write-in.
"Yeah, I'll continue my work with the county," Hanson continued. "I could quit and run, but I just cannot afford to do that."
Hanson praised his supporters.
"I just appreciate their support and loyalty," he said. "But if I can't run, pick the other best candidate. Regardless of party, pick who they think is best."
Wright's candidacy also ends
Wright filed for county commissioner on Friday, Feb. 8.
"And then right after that is when I talked with the sheriff," said Wright, who is doing contractual work for the county, helping to develop its animal control policy and rewriting the sheriff's office regular policies. "We weren't sure if it would apply because I was on contract with the county."
Wright said that sometime after March 11, Sheriff Rodd Clark talked with Gordon.
"And then I talked with Scott Cooper," Wright said. At that point, he said county officials were already looking into whether he could run for county commissioner, and that they were waiting to hear back from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is based in Washington, D.C. This office handles Hatch Act cases.
"At the same time, the sheriff and I were discussing the duties at the sheriff's office and where my needs would best fit the county," Wright said.
Wright said that "obviously with my 30 years of law enforcement," his best position would be in the sheriff's office and to "continue research and development for the sheriff's office and continue my employment with Sheriff Rodd Clark."
To help in the communication piece, earlier Monday, March 24, a press release was sent out from the sheriff's office.
"On Friday, March 21, 2008, it was (determined) that Russ Wright, a current employee of the Crook County Sheriff's Office, would not continue in his endeavor to seek the office of Crook County commissioner position number one," Wright stated in the release. "With the continuing efforts of Sgt. Russ Wright within the sheriff's office, it was a difficult decision to make. Remain with the sheriff's office and continue to help in its high standard of professionalism, or leave the sheriff's office and seek the office of county commissioner to continue to improve the county as a whole. Russ has decided to remain with the sheriff's office, where he believes his years of experience will better serve Crook County."
Wright added that he had already planned to withdraw from the race even before the Hatch Act notification came about.
"It was two-fold. I had already spoken with Scott Cooper, the county judge, and also ran the scenario by him over where I would best fit for the county as far as my expertise that would serve the county to the best of my abilities," Wright said. Wright also recalled that Cooper also said, "that in the interests of the county, my continued work with the sheriff's office would continue to benefit the county."
"The formal decision through my committee, my campaign committee, was made last Wednesday," Wright said, adding that last Friday (March 21), he signed a document to withdraw his name from the May ballot.
Like Hanson, Wright thanked his supporters.
"I just want to thank everyone for their support and continued support," Wright said. "Their support is appreciated and I will continue to work to maintain our current livability in Crook County."
Clark said the federal act "came up in my last election," referring to November 2006.
"In my case, the sheriff's office is a non-partisan office and we had a complaint filed against us," he said. Later he was cleared in the Office of Special Counsel investigation. Clark said he had talked with county counsel to make sure that the federal law does not apply to the county commissioners' race, because in that case, it is a partisan race.
"I wanted to make sure that if it did apply, that the people filing could make adjustments and not get into trouble with the feds," Clark said.
Clark added that as the county learned about the Hatch Act, employees tried to make sure "we didn't inadvertently violate any laws."