Adams County Sheriff's endorsements may have broken electioneering laws

by EMRY DINMAN
Staff Writer | October 15, 2020 1:00 AM

RITZVILLE — The Adams County Sheriff may have violated state electioneering laws with a recent post to the department’s official social media page that endorsed two candidates for the county board of commissioners, according to state election officials.

The post has since been deleted.

On Sunday, Wagner took to the department’s Facebook page to endorse Jay Weise and Dan Blankenship, two candidates for county commission. He also raised complaints against incumbent commissioner John Marshall, who is running for re-election against Blankenship, for not being supportive of budget expansions for the sheriff’s office.

While elected officials are allowed to make political endorsements on private social media pages, Wagner made the posts on the Adams County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page, potentially exposing the sheriff’s department to legal liability and fines.

State election laws state that no elected official or employee of a public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any facilities or resources of that government office, including that agency’s social media, for the purpose of assisting the campaign of any election candidates. Under this law, local resident Sean Bates filed a complaint Sunday with the Public Disclosure Commission.

“I don’t have a personal grudge against Wagner,” Bates said in an interview. “The main thing is, fair is fair, and nobody that is in office is allowed to use their bully pulpit in an official capacity to endorse candidates.”

The Sun Tribune attempted to reach Wagner for comment but was told by county dispatch that the sheriff and undersheriff were unavailable, as were other members of command staff, captains and lieutenants of the sheriff’s department. After requesting a return call from any deputy with the sheriff’s office, the Sun Tribune received no response before deadline.

Though Wagner did not respond to a request for comment, he did continue to write on the department’s social media page Monday. In response to complaints by Bates and other local residents, Wagner deleted his previous endorsement, but maintained that he believed he did not break any laws and dismissed complaints as the “usual dissatisfaction” of “those of differing opinions.”

“Even though I had gone to great lengths to determine if the post in support of candidates was legal and correct by means of checking with legal prior to posting, and had been instructed it was, and I believe is still,” Wagner wrote on the department’s page.

“Some have offered there (sic) usual dissatisfaction because it was not how they feel it should be,” Wagner said. “So, I have decided remove (sic) my post. I do this so as not to cause any further distress to those of differing opinions.”

Attempts to directly contact Wagner to clarify who advised him that the endorsement was legal went unanswered. Adams County Prosecutor Randy Flyckt said Monday in an interview that he believes that the sheriff had misunderstood previous advice from Flyckt that Wagner could endorse candidates in his capacity as sheriff – but only on his personal page.

“The sheriff had consulted with me about whether he could make an endorsement of a candidate, and he has every right to do that,” Flyckt said. “But it was brought to my attention over the weekend that a complaint was made about a statement made by the sheriff over Facebook.”

“I advised the sheriff that because it was the Facebook for the entire department, as opposed to one for him, that we recommended that that post should probably be removed,” Flyckt said. “We certainly agree that using any kind of public facilities for campaigning is inappropriate.”

Marshall, who went unnamed but was specifically criticized in Wagner’s post, said Monday that his relationship with Wagner has been hostile for years due to disputes about Wagner’s requests for additional funds beyond what he had budgeted for the year. He stated that it was inappropriate for Wagner to use the department’s social media to endorse a candidate that would oversee his budget, and that Wagner’s follow-up Monday showed no willingness to accept fault.

“These responses are truly narcissistic in fashion,” Marshall said, referring to Wagner’s post Monday. “They’re, ‘I’m not wrong, I’m never wrong.’”

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.