Sheriff’s contribution in high bailiff campaign draws scrutiny
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler is drawing criticism from some state officials for using some of his department’s funds during the Nov. 8 election to back his preferred candidate for high bailiff, an official who has the power to arrest the sheriff and potentially replace that person if he or she is unable to perform the duties of that office.
It was on Nov. 10 that Keeler paid $154 for advertising that had run in the Addison Independent in support of Charles Clark, who was the Republican candidate in a four-way race for Addison County high bailiff. Clark finished second in the race (with 6,487 votes) to the winner, Democrat Ron Holmes, who received 8,309 votes.
Keeler paid for the ad with a check from the account of the Addison County Sheriff’s Department General Fund, as opposed to a personal check.
Keeler explained that the department’s general fund does not include any county or federal funds, but rather the proceeds from service contracts that his force maintains with towns for security, traffic details and other law enforcement activities. The sheriff’s department, at last count, had contracts with 17 Addison County towns, which pay for the sheriff’s services primarily with their property tax revenues.
State officials said that while Vermont campaign finance laws don’t regulate the sources from which contributors tap funds to support their preferred candidates in an election, they questioned the advisability of an elected official using his or her department funds to influence a partisan election.
“From a policy standpoint, it doesn’t appear to be a good policy decision to have done that,” Vermont Secretary of State Condos said. “It would certainly raise questions.
“I would never in my wildest dreams think about using secretary of state’s operating money to move a political agenda,” Condos added. “You just don’t do that.”
Keeler, contacted on Tuesday, maintained his purchase of an ad for Clark using department funds was a legitimate expense.
“That is my money,” he said. “That money in that general fund is my money under my direction.”
Keeler, during that initial interview, said he planned on reimbursing the department for the $154 if “somebody wants to make an issue out of it.”
But the sheriff called back a short time later saying he had changed his mind.
“I just had a conversation with my bookkeeper, and I have decided that I’m not going to reimburse to the department for $154 … and you can make whatever issue you want to make out of that,” Keeler said. “It’s not county funds, it’s not federal funds, it’s Don Keeler’s funds. It’s for the work that I do with contracts.”
Keeler said the media inquiry would, however, prompt him to reassess his planned contribution of $420 from his department’s general fund to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a South Hero camp serving children with cancer and their families. The sheriff’s department is participating in a countywide law enforcement fund drive called, “deer camp beards for kids with cancer.” As reported in the Nov. 10 issue of the Independent, the fund drive invites officers to refrain from shaving during the month of November as long as they each donate $30 to the camp.
“I guess if the other thing is an issue, I guess Camp Ta-Kum-Ta is a loser in this one,” Keeler said.
When asked if there was a difference between using department funds to make a contribution to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta and using such funds to help a favorite candidate in an election, Keeler replied, “There is no difference. It’s not public funds. They are under my direct control and are not public funds.”
CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAW
Vermont’s campaign finance laws are addressed in Chapter 61, Title 17 of state statutes. The law addresses such issues as contribution limitations and prohibiting the transfer of donations, but nothing about where a contributor can or can’t source his or her donations, noted Will Senning, director of elections for the state of Vermont.
“Interestingly, the election law doesn’t have any of that kind of prohibition on the source of funding for a contribution,” Senning said of Keeler’s ad purchase in support of Clark.
“I get this or similar questions a lot, but the election law doesn’t speak to that. It doesn’t say a contribution cannot be made, for instance, using taxpayers funds or government money,” Senning said. “At least from the perspective of the campaign finance law, there’s really no prohibition on what money you’re spending toward a contribution.”
When Senning fields such questions from elected officials, he said he advises them “to look at the institution’s policy or county government policy to see if there was anything that would prohibit the use of those funds for anything personal — including campaign contributions.”
The Independent’s repeated efforts to reach John Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, were unsuccessful on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the paper went to press.
Since the state’s campaign finance law doesn’t speak to where contributions are sourced, Condos said such a remedy would have to come through a governmental code of ethics or personnel policy.
“I think it is certainly going down a dangerous and slippery slope to allow state funds or government funds to advocate for specific candidates,” Condos said. “It surprises me that (Keeler) would do that. Maybe he has a different take on it.”
The sheriff’s department derives the vast majority of its revenue from the services it provides to clients throughout the county. Those services include law enforcement, security, speed limit enforcement, serving writs and warrants, and transporting prisoners. The department also receives reimbursement from the county budget for such expenses as building maintenance, training and administrative support. The county and state of Vermont are also required to cover additional ACSD expenses, including the sheriff’s salary and benefits, office space and some automotive expenses, according to the most recent (2014) independent audit of the department’s revenues and expenditures.
The most current Addison County budget, for fiscal year 2017, shows $126,529 in funding for the sheriff’s budget, including $79,000 for salaries, $20,026 for benefits, and $500 for training — a sum that Keeler said was far less than requested by other sheriff’s departments.
The most recent independently audited sheriff’s department budget showed total operating expenses of $778,542 for 2014.
‘PARTISAN POLITICAL PURPOSES’
State Auditor Doug Hoffer said this was the first such case he had heard of an elected official using his or her department funds to back a candidate of his or her choice for a related office. Hoffer became auditor in 2012.
“In my view, in such cases, elected officials should always exercise caution and avoid such entanglements,” Hoffer said. “Generally, public funds should never be used for partisan political matters. I am not aware of any explicit prohibition in statute in that regard, but all those who directly or indirectly pay for the services of the sheriff or any other public figure, I think it’s fair to say, did not expect that their funds would be used for partisan political purposes.”
Hoffer stressed his office has no authority over sheriff department’s expenditures. But the auditor’s office pays one third of the costs of the biennial audits of the state’s 14 county sheriff’s department budgets. An independent firm performs those audits — eight in one year, six the next.
“It seems to me that as a public official, not only should this situation be avoided, but public funds should never be used for partisan political purposes,” Hoffer said.
It was Gov. Peter Shumlin who appointed Keeler — a former Addison County high bailiff — to serve as Addison County sheriff after longtime incumbent James Coons died in office during the spring of 2012. Keeler won election to the job in his own right in 2014, besting Holmes, who ran as a write-in candidate.
Keeler began as a part-time deputy with the county sheriff’s department back in 1972. When Keeler and his family sold their filling station on Court Street in 1988, Keeler joined the department full-time.
Holmes worked as a deputy with the sheriff’s department for 25 years until being let go by Keeler around three years ago.
UPDATE: On Friday, Sheriff Keeler told the Independent that he had reimbursed the Addison County Sheriff’s Department for the $154 in question.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See related story: Editorial: Sheriff’s action was legal, but not good public policy
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