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Utah chief poster child for Hatch Act problem

Published May 16, 2012 5:25 pm

Politics • Panel members of both parties criticize 1930s era law that bars public employees with any connection to fed monies from seeking office.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • In a rare display of bipartisanship, a House subcommittee agreed Wednesday that fired Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner was wronged — and he's not alone.

A transit police officer in Philadelphia couldn't run for a spot on the school board because he patrolled the rail lines with a police dog supported by federal funds.

A paramedic couldn't run for county coroner because he transported people who receive Medicaid benefits.

Deputy sheriffs are routinely told they cannot legally campaign for the top job because the department receives at least one federal grant.

And then there's Greiner, a former state senator who had to halt his re-election bid and then lost his job as Ogden's police chief at the end of 2011 because he was the point of contact on a 2006 grant that helped Weber County get a new dispatch center.

In recent years, hundreds of potential candidates have been tripped up by the Hatch Act, a law from the late 1930s that bars public employees with any connection to federal funds from running for political office.

Carolyn Lerner, who leads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, calls the law "absurd" when applied to state and local officials. She added it is taking too much of her staff's time.

"We are going to enforce the law, and the way the law reads right now it is not something I am particularly comfortable doing," Lerner said at the hearing. "Removing this provision will promote good government and demonstrate respect for the independence of states and localities."

Lerner, who has been in her post for almost a year, said she sees the Hatch Act used "as a weapon" in campaigns, where one campaign will file an anonymous complaint against a rival.

That's what happened when Greiner first ran for the state Senate in 2006. The complaint surfaced in October, though it didn't stop him from winning the race. The legal dispute stretched until he lost his appeal, which stopped him from running for re-election in 2010 and forced the city to fire him by 2011 or pay a penalty of twice his annual salary. He made more than $161,000 annually in salary and benefits, according to Utahsright.com.

The federal government also has ruled Greiner can't serve as an executive for a Utah police agency for 18 months.

"That exceeds the penalties that federal courts give to convicted felons," Greiner told the committee, noting the house arrest baseball great Barry Bonds received for lying under oath.

He paid $30,000 fighting the Hatch Act violation and Ogden City's insurer paid $293,000 in legal fees. Greiner is now running for a seat on the Weber County Commission.

No witness defended the law and each legislator who addressed the issue, Republican and Democrat alike, agreed Congress should change the law. Subcommittee Chairman Dennis Ross, R-Fla., decried the "overreaching and arbitrary restrictions." Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has a bill ready to go and senators are working on similar bills.

It's unusual for every participant in a congressional hearing to agree and the moment wasn't lost on Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who couldn't help but joke about the standard political divide in Congress.

"So since we are all in agreement that this is a good idea, we'll probably have to kick it upstairs to party leadership and they'll come up with some reasons why we really don't agree," he said. "This can't happen."

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham