CONYERS - The man wore a brown and tan sheriff's office uniform with the rank of captain as he placed campaign fliers in windshields of parked cars at Johnson Park during a debate in April between Democratic sheriff candidates Donald Ferguson and Randy Akies.
The man was Robert Voight, and the uniform he was wearing represented the Fulton County Sheriff's Office. Though Voight's work in uniform for the Ferguson campaign raised eyebrows by some of those in attendance, state ethics laws do not clearly address the issue.
When asked about the incident, Ferguson said he believed it was inappropriate for Voight, who is retired from the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, to be seen campaigning for him in uniform. Voight is also a two-time candidate for sheriff in Rockdale County, having run unsuccessful campaigns for sheriff in the 1980s and 1996.
Ferguson said he was unaware that Voight was passing out campaign literature in full uniform and said he put a stop to it once he was made aware of what was going on.
"I advised him he cannot do that," Ferguson said. "It's not a part of what I stand for, and I made sure that was not to happen again."
According to the state Ethics Commission, the use of sheriff's office resources or deputies in local campaigns is against the law. For example, the Georgia State Ethics Commission in December ordered Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill to pay a $2,000 fine for "improperly using county resources" when it found that Hill advertised fundraisers for his re-election campaign in the department's newsletter and interoffice memos.
However, using uniformed officers from out-of-county agencies for campaign purposes is not clear under state ethics rules, according to Rick Thompson, executive secretary for the Ethics Commission.
"The question is whether the work is being done on taxpayers' time," Thompson said. "We're not saying it does violate state ethics rules or it doesn't, because that's how we would have to approach it before the commission could make a ruling."
The Ethnics Commissions calls such violations 30.2 violations, named for the state ethics code, found in the Official Code of Georgia Section 21-5-30, that covers state or local government employees campaigning or contributing to political campaigns.
Thompson said the law simply states that employees of a state or county agency cannot directly contribute to a campaign in terms of contribution of money, services or time.
Any complaint of unethical behavior of a person running for public office would have to include a citation of a section in the ethics code as an alleged violation from which the Ethics Commission staff would investigate.
After its review. the staff would present its findings to the five-member Ethics Commission, which would then determine if the reported incident is an ethics violation.
"If someone came to us who was a county employee and wanted to know if it was all right for them to work on the campaign of someone running for election, whether that be knocking on doors or making a contribution, we would say 'No,'" Thompson said.
But Voight's actions fall in a gray area. Thompson said it was unclear that it was a direct ethics violation because Voight does not work for the department that Ferguson is seeking to be elected to.
Ferguson, however, said he considers the activities inappropriate for his campaign.
"You can't campaign in your uniform. It's not ethical, and I don't want to be in the position of being associated with doing anything unethical," Ferguson said.
Concerns over ethical behavior in the race for sheriff have been raised once already in this campaign. In August, Ferguson filed an ethics complaint against Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington - who will face either Ferguson or Akies in the general election in November - for an incident involving a deputy checking on permits during a fundraising event held by Ferguson in the parking lot of the old Target building on Ga. Highway 138.
Ferguson argued the presence of the deputy was "inappropriate" and he felt embarrassed.
The Ethics Commission rejected the complaint in November because it did not specifically identify ethics violations.
Jay Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.