Campaign violation alleged against sheriff candidate Newton

MIDDLEBURY — A complaint has been filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel as to whether Peter Newton, a lieutenant in the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, is eligible to run for county sheriff because a portion of his police salary was paid through a federal grant before his campaign began.
Sheriff Don Keeler, who is not seeking re-election, and Newton said this week there is no basis for the anonymous complaint under what is known as the federal Hatch Act.
Keeler assigned Lt. Newton to the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office in April 2015 to work on domestic abuse and sexual assault investigations, Keeler said. A federal domestic violence grant covered up to 20 hours a week, while the sheriff’s budget covered the balance, Keeler said.
Earlier this year Newton asked to be taken off the special assignment so he could devote some of his day to running for Addison County sheriff, Keeler and Newton both said.
Under the so-called Hatch Act, certain workers paid by federal funds are prohibited from holding political office and doing some kinds of political activity.
Middlebury lawyer James Foley, who represents the sheriff’s department, said Tuesday he believes the Hatch Act does not cover the Newton case. The act is designed for full-time federal workers and Newton had stopped being paid under the grant when he started his run for sheriff, Foley said.
Newton is facing Ron Holmes of Middlebury in the Democratic Primary on Aug. 14. Former Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs has said he plans run as an independent in the General Election in November.
Newton, 46, of Middlebury said when he decided to run he pledged to be transparent and be as above board as possible.
The lieutenant actually disclosed the investigation to the Addison Independent when recently asked about his campaign.
“It’s been going really good, until this one incident,” he said. “We have been getting out and people are asking for lawn signs.”
Newton has been with the sheriff’s department for six years and worked for the Middlebury Police Department for 10 years. He was a member of Middlebury ambulance squad for 13 years and was its first paid member before moving into police work.
Erica Hamrick is deputy chief for the Hatch Act Unit of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. She sent a letter to the Addison County Sheriff’s Department asking for information about sources of funding. Her letter does note the federal law, adopted in 1939, was updated in 2013, “Now, only state, D.C. or local government employees whose salaries are paid entirely by federal funds are prohibited from running for partisan office,” she wrote.
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans said Newton has been valuable doing the extra legwork in serious criminal cases. Wygmans said state police have been understaffed and stretched thin. He said it has been critical to have somebody in his office to work with prosecutors to chase what is needed with little notice.
State police used to assign troopers as investigators for many county prosecutors in Vermont, but no longer. The Addison County Sheriff’s Office in recent years stepped in.
Wygmans said his office is not involved in paying Newton. The deputy’s timesheet is with the sheriff’s office, he said.
Keeler said Newton continues to work full-time doing other duties, but as a supervisor has more control over assignments and shifts.
The three-year federal grant to WomenSafe covers $31,200 a year. The grant is up for renewal this fall and local officials hope the complaint does not jeopardize future services in Addison County.
Newton does not know for sure who filed the complaint and according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel he probably won’t ever know.
U.S. Office of Special Counsel would not confirm the investigation to the Independent even when told he had a copy of the department’s letter. Hamrick, as deputy chief for the Hatch Act Unit, told the Independent she could not comment on the letter sent to Keeler asking for department records.
Speaking in general terms, the office said only the complaining witness and the target are told the outcome of any investigation.
“It is OSC’s policy not to comment on or confirm any open or closed Hatch Act investigations. We typically maintain confidentiality throughout the process,” Communications Director Zachary Kurz said in an email.
“Once an investigation is complete, a letter with the findings is provided to only the subject of the investigation and to the complainant. The subject of the investigation does not learn the identity of the complainant through our process.”
The OSC letter, which Keeler shared with the Addison Independent, says an investigation is underway into a claim that one of his employees has violated the Hatch Act. It asked for various records from 2018 that involve any federal funds that were passed through to his office.
Hamrick also asked the sheriff to provide a job description for the post of lieutenant and investigator. Newton is one of two lieutenants in the department. Lt. Ruth Whitney is not paid with federal funds, Keeler said.
Foley, after his legal review, and Keeler said they don’t expect anything to come from the complaint, but found it frustrating that federal officials have indicated they won’t tell the sheriff’s department it has been cleared, especially after providing all the records.
“We have nothing to hide here,” Keeler said.

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