SOURCE: KNEWS - Hugh Willett

Loudon candidates say rival breaking rules

Hugh G. Willett,

Posted March 28, 2010 at midnight

LOUDON - Two candidates for Loudon County clerk say they are concerned that a rival and other employees in the clerk's office are campaigning during working hours, and at least one county commissioner favors referring the matter to the county ethics committee.

Darlene Russell, who has worked in the clerk's office for 30 years, said that she has been handing out "Elect Darlene Russell" cards to citizens transacting business in the clerk's office. Other employees working in the office also hand out the cards, she said.

Russell said such activity has been a common practice all the time she has been working in the clerk's office under County Clerk Riley Wampler.

"I checked with the election commission, and they said it's not illegal," Russell said.

Wampler, who is retiring after 33 years as county clerk, said he knew about the campaigning and the complaints from Russell's Republican primary opponents. He declined further comment.

Max Wilburn, one of four GOP candidates for clerk, said he is concerned about the implied endorsement given to Russell by the clerk's office when its employees distribute her literature. It's also wrong to engage in such activity during working hours, he said.

Republican candidate Angie Vittatoe addressed the issue on her campaign Web site several weeks ago, noting that she had heard that employees in the clerk's office were not only distributing campaign literature but also telling citizens that those in the office would lose their jobs if Russell is not elected.

Vittatoe, who works for the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office, also noted that she is not allowed to engage in campaign activity during work hours.

A fourth Republican candidate, Nicholas Bradshaw, said he was aware of the issue but declined comment.

Wilburn said he brought his concerns to Loudon County Election Commissioner Susan Harrison but was told nothing could be done.

Harrison said she checked more than once with the State Election Commission and was advised that there is no state law that prohibits campaigning from a public building while working.

Further, election commissions have no control over how elected officials, such as county clerks, manage their offices, Harrison said.

Wilburn said he did some research and found that political activity during work hours by county employees is specifically prohibited in the county policy handbook in Section 6.5.

The county handbook states: "No employee shall solicit political campaign contributions, actively participate in a political campaign or engage in other political activities when on duty, while at work or when acting in the employee's official capacity."

The penalty for violating the policy may include disciplinary action up to and including termination.

Wilburn said he called County Mayor Doyle Arp's office. He followed up with a written complaint that outlined the allegations.

"I believe Riley David Wampler and Darlene Russell are using their control over their employees to force them to give flyers to anybody and everybody who has to do with that office," Wilburn said.

Wilburn said Arp told him he'd spoken with Wampler about the campaign activity and was told that it would stop. Arp declined to comment to the News Sentinel.

County Commissioner Bob Franke said that regardless of whether or not the activity was continuing, it should not have occurred in the first place.

"Any violation of county policy should be investigated by the county ethics commission," he said.

Hugh G. Willett is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.