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Federal office: No Hatch Act violations in Dearborn County

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A federal government office has cleared two Dearborn County officials who’d been accused by the former county attorney of violating federal law that restricts political activity for those involved with federally funded programs.

Ending a nearly three-month public ordeal, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel issued a letter Monday to the Dearborn County Sheriff’s detective who’d been one of two accused of violations. G. Michael Witte, the former county attorney who notified federal authorities of the possible violations, left that position in June to become the Indiana Disciplinary Commission’s executive secretary.

Acting as county attorney, Witte – a former Dearborn Superior 1 judge – wrote a letter to the office’s Hatch Act Unit in May that asked the office to investigate possible county violations of the federal law. The 1939-enacted law is designed to prevent conflicts of interest in government, and it restricts political activity of some federal, state, and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programs.

The issue has surfaced recently throughout the state, most notably in the case of the Terre Haute mayoral election in which the Indiana Supreme Court last year upheld a Vigo Circuit judge’s decision that the state statute relating to the Hatch Act and Little Hatch Act didn’t prevent the mayoral election winner from initially being a candidate or subsequently taking office after he’d defeated the incumbent mayor.

After an internal review in Dearborn County, Witte wrote that he believed the county is out of compliance with the Hatch Act provisions on four grants totaling $327,112. At issue were two county employees: county commissioner candidate Shane McHenry, who is one of three sheriff’s detectives working in the county Special Crimes Unit that receives three grants; and county councilman Bryan Messmore, who works in the victims’ services area of the prosecutor’s office that receives a federal grant that pays for his salary and benefits.

Witte considered those dual roles as possible Hatch Act violations that could result in the county losing federal grants or being fined, so he wanted the federal office to review the matter because it’s outside the county authority. He raised the issue during a county commissioners meeting May 17, and both McHenry and Messmore maintained they hadn’t violated the Hatch Act.

In its letter to McHenry, Hatch Act Unit Deputy Chief Erica S. Hamrick wrote that the sheriff’s detective and commissioner-candidate didn’t fall under the law’s scope because he didn’t have any job duties specifically relating to any federally funded program. The position with the sheriff’s office is funded solely through state tax dollars and not any federal grants or loans, the office wrote, and his role with the special crimes unit didn’t involve supervising anyone with those duties.

“The argument could be made that because the coordinator, administrative assistant, and part-time deputy prosecutor play an important role in the operations of the SCU, a detective assigned to the SCU would have duties in connection with federally financed activities,” the letter states. “However, we find that your employment ‘can more accurately be said to be in association with such activities.’"

The office cited In re Pearson, 2 P.A.R. 70,71 (1970), in which the Civil Service Commission held that the respondent wasn’t covered by the Hatch Act because his duties in relation to construction of federal highways were in association with, not in connection with, the federally financed activities.

A footnote on the letter’s last page instructs that McHenry should contact the office if his job duties or the federal funding changes, for possible further review.

McHenry told Indiana Lawyer today that he’d received a phone call about “being cleared” a month ago, but just received the letter this week. He also said that the office had previously cleared Messmore after determining the Hatch Act didn’t apply because Messmore had been named by political caucus and not a bipartisan election as the law requires. The federal office couldn’t be immediately reached today and has previously declined to discuss specifics about this or any case.

Witte reviewed the Hatch Act letter and limited his comments, as he no longer represents the county.

“I did what I was required to do, and that was to investigate possible violations and report them to someone with authority to decide what should happen,” he said today. “I did my job, and they did their job. There was nothing nefarious about any of this.”


 

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  1. People have heard of Magna Carta, and not the Provisions of Oxford & Westminster. Not that anybody really cares. Today, it might be considered ethnic or racial bias to talk about the "Anglo Saxon common law." I don't even see the word English in the blurb above. Anyhow speaking of Edward I-- he was famously intolerant of diversity himself viz the Edict of Expulsion 1290. So all he did too like making parliament a permanent institution-- that all must be discredited. 100 years from now such commemorations will be in the dustbin of history.

  2. Oops, I meant discipline, not disciple. Interesting that those words share such a close relationship. We attorneys are to be disciples of the law, being disciplined to serve the law and its source, the constitutions. Do that, and the goals of Magna Carta are advanced. Do that not and Magna Carta is usurped. Do that not and you should be disciplined. Do that and you should be counted a good disciple. My experiences, once again, do not reveal a process that is adhering to the due process ideals of Magna Carta. Just the opposite, in fact. Braveheart's dying rebel (for a great cause) yell comes to mind.

  3. It is not a sign of the times that many Ind licensed attorneys (I am not) would fear writing what I wrote below, even if they had experiences to back it up. Let's take a minute to thank God for the brave Baron's who risked death by torture to tell the government that it was in the wrong. Today is a career ruination that whistleblowers risk. That is often brought on by denial of licenses or disciple for those who dare speak truth to power. Magna Carta says truth rules power, power too often claims that truth matters not, only Power. Fight such power for the good of our constitutional republics. If we lose them we have only bureaucratic tyranny to pass onto our children. Government attorneys, of all lawyers, should best realize this and work to see our patrimony preserved. I am now a government attorney (once again) in Kansas, and respecting the rule of law is my passion, first and foremost.

  4. I have dealt with more than a few I-465 moat-protected government attorneys and even judges who just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the core of this 800 year old document. I guess monarchial privileges and powers corrupt still ..... from an academic website on this fantastic "treaty" between the King and the people ... "Enduring Principles of Liberty Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. There are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Inspiration for Americans During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land." http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/

  5. I'm not sure what's more depressing: the fact that people would pay $35,000 per year to attend an unaccredited law school, or the fact that the same people "are hanging in there and willing to follow the dean’s lead in going forward" after the same school fails to gain accreditation, rendering their $70,000 and counting education worthless. Maybe it's a good thing these people can't sit for the bar.

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