COVINGTON - An Oxford resident and former GBI agent has filed a complaint with the Secretary of State's Office alleging Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton, a candidate for sheriff, illegally used a Newton County Sheriff's Office badge in a campaign flier.
Randy Upton filed a complaint Monday claiming Cotton has violated a state statute that prohibits using the name, badge or any other symbols related to the sheriff's office without the sheriff's permission.
Cotton, who is in a runoff against Lt. Bill Watterson for the Republican nomination, used an image of a badge bearing the name of the Newton County Sheriff's Office and Georgia Sheriff's Association in a campaign mailout.
A spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office confirmed receipt of the complaint and said it is under review by the inspector general to determine whether further action should be taken.
Cotton was out of town when contacted about the complaint Tuesday.
"I obviously haven't seen the complaint yet and we will address it," he said. "I don't believe I've done anything wrong. It is my badge with my name and it was given to me by the sheriff. I've been deputized since 1989."
However, Upton said the law doesn't make an exception for a "personal" badge.
"Just about every police agency has statutes to protect their badge. When I was a GBI agent, although it was my badge, technically it really wasn't. It belonged to the agency," he said. "It's not a personal badge. It's a public badge that grants the authority to be a police officer. They can take it away at any time. If it was personal, they couldn't do that. There are a lot of obscure laws out there, but someone who wants to be the top cop in the county should know the laws and statutes."
According to Georgia Code 15-16-51, the law is aimed at preventing individuals and organizations from misleading the public into believing they are a member of the sheriff's office when they are not and to protect the name of the sheriff's office. Violation of the law carries a felony penalty of a fine between $1,000 and $5,000 or imprisonment for one to five years, or both.
The law provides an avenue for the sheriff to pursue an injunction in Superior Court to restrain the violation and allows for additional sanctions against "willful violators" who broke the law after receiving a written notification by the sheriff.
Sheriff Joe Nichols said that Cotton did not ask for permission to use the badge, and added that he wasn't aware of the law or the campaign flier until Upton raised the issue.
"I appreciate Mr. Upton bringing it to my attention. I wasn't aware of the law, and when I called the Georgia Sheriff's Association, they had to look it up. They weren't familiar with it," he said.
Since reading the law, Nichols said he has contacted the three sheriff's candidates and asked them to discontinue use of all references to the Sheriff's Office except in job histories or descriptions.
"I've talked to all three remaining candidates. They are all men I trust, men of character, and I've asked all of them for the remainder of the campaign not to use the Newton County Sheriff's Office on any advertisements or mailouts or newspaper ads in any form or fashion. They've agreed to that and I'm satisfied with that," he said.
Watterson said he has a photo of himself wearing a badge on his Web site, and said he didn't see a problem with it, since he wears the badge in the normal course of duty.
He also has a photo of the sign outside the Sheriff's Office on the Web site, which he will now remove. Watterson said he obtained permission from the sheriff to use the picture of the sign out of courtesy, but did not realize there was a law requiring permission.
Democratic candidate Ezell Brown said he had only a "vague memory" of the law, but added that he has not knowingly used any Sheriff's Office symbols or images in his campaign.
"We're only focused on our campaign and are trying in every way to stay positive and within the parameters of the law," he said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.