Feds looking into alleged Hatch Act violations in Steuben County

Justin Head

Federal officials are looking into allegations that a member of the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office — perhaps one or both of the two candidates for sheriff — has violated the federal Hatch Act.

The Hatch Act prohibits officials compensated by the federal government from seeking election in a partisan contest. The act is named after U.S. Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico and designed to prevent federal money from influencing politics or a person running for office.

Chief Deputy Joel Ordway won a tumultuous three-way Republican primary race over Undersheriff Dave Cole and his new running-mate, Jim Waight. Ordway is the sheriff’s office grant writer and has boasted of securing over a million dollars in grants since being in his position.

Cole won the Independence line and was endorsed for the Conservative ticket.

Last week, Sheriff Richard Tweddell and Cole were contacted by the U. S. Office of Special Counsel and interviewed in response to allegations that the Hatch Act may have been violated. Attorneys from the U.S. Office of Special Council are in the process of gathering information and conducting interviews with sheriff’s office administrators to see if there is any merit to the claims.

Tweddell provided job descriptions for both Ordway and Cole and is expected to hand over more information about their positions this week. The sheriff said he believes the law is outdated and that he spoke with another sheriff in the area investigated for the same reason when he ran for office and the charges were dropped.

“This is a very old law aimed at politicians that distribute federal money, I’m not sure either of them qualify,” said Tweddell.

Tweddell also scoffed at claims that he launched the investigation.

“I did not call for this and who ever is making those allegations, I’m sorry they feel that way,” said Tweddell.

Tweddell, who is retiring, endorsed Cole to be the next sheriff. Some in the GOP say the federal probe is a political tactic meant to hinder the Ordway campaign.

Ordway has not yet been contacted by any one investigating the alleged violations, but says he is not worried about the investigation or his role as grant writer.

“We are just going to keep taking the higher road and keep moving forward. This is just another distraction thrown at me by my opponent,” said Ordway this morning. He does not feel he violated the Hatch Act and is confident it will not have any bearing on him and the Nov. 4 election.

“This is not just an investigation on myself, but it also targets the undersheriff and sheriff himself,” said Ordway 

Cole was surprised and angered by the investigation. He feels that if anyone is responsible for violating the Hatch Act, he should bear the responsibility. Cole said grant writing is a group effort that Ordway has taken credit for during the campaign.

“Joel Ordway has claimed time and again that he was the sole reason for millions of dollars of grant money for sheriff’s office equipment. I have not felt it necessary to attack his claims, but they are false. Due to the Hatch Act investigation, the record needs to be set straight. Joel Ordway is my subordinate and no one in the sheriff’s office “freelances” on their own in sheriff’s office operations. Ordway works under my direction generally as a “key punch operator” applying for grants. Had we known his duties violated the Hatch Act, the duties of applying for federal grants could have been delegated to a clerical person.  All grant applications and equipment purchases are jointly agreed upon by the sheriff’s administration,” said Cole in a letter released to the media today.

“I will take full responsibility for any laws broken by violating this act. I am Chief Ordway’s boss and if anybody is culpable it would be myself,” said Cole. Cole said that if the U.S. Office of Special Counsel decides the act was violated, then that person will be asked to resign within two weeks or withdraw their application for candidacy in the upcoming election. Cole said he has nothing to hide.

Both Cole or Ordway are paid by county funds, and neither of the two have any role in the disbursement or federal money. All three of the sheriff’s office top officials pledged complete cooperation with the probe.

The Evening Tribune