Moffat County Commissioner Audrey Danner addressed Wednesday the circumstances behind her research of the Hatch Act, a federal law that surfaced recently at the local level, during a news conference at the Moffat County Courthouse.
Written in 1939 and amended in 1940, the Hatch Act restricts political activity of people employed by state or local agencies who work in connection with programs financed, at least to some degree, by federal money.
The law has caused one candidate, K.C. Hume, to drop out of the race for county coroner, and a second, Lila Herod, to resign from her job as the county’s chief deputy clerk and elections supervisor, in recent weeks.
Danner, a Republican who has been criticized by the chairman of the county’s Republican Party in regard to her handling of Hatch Act information, said the purpose of the conference was to “present information I have on events that have taken place recently with our employees who are seeking public office.”
“I believe the public has a right to know,” she said.
The Wednesday news conference was limited to Danner’s role as a county commissioner, and she did not address questions about her own candidacy for public office in November in regard to the Hatch Act.
She spent the first part of the conference addressing the timeline and circumstances behind her research into the federal law and actions relating to that information.
“The first part of February, a citizen came to the Moffat County attorney questioning a potential conflict of interest with a Moffat County employee considering a candidacy for a public office,” Danner said in the press conference.
She added that “may pertain to more than one employee, and I will not be naming any of them today.”
County employees, Danner said, were questioning “this same potential conflict of interest” through the county’s human resources department. County attorney Kathleen Taylor and human resources director Lynette Running began to research the situation, Danner said.
Danner said Taylor notified her Feb. 16 about the “potential conflict of interest situation she was researching with other county attorneys around the state.”
Later that week, Taylor advised her of the Hatch Act, which “came to her attention from other county attorneys’ comments on the potential conflict of interest,” Danner said.
On Feb. 22, Danner met with “Moffat County administration” and Taylor to determine “if we had federal funds coming to county departments, and we noted two instances of federal funding that might apply,” she said.
Danner said she then met with candidates she thought might be impacted after being presented with information from Taylor on the Hatch Act.
“The purpose of my meeting with each candidate was to inform them of our research on the potential implications of the Hatch Act,” she said. “I did not offer an opinion, but merely presented the information I had. I ended the meetings with the comment that this was a potentially serious situation and the county attorney would be directed to continue researching the responsibility of the county regarding the Hatch Act.”
After providing information to candidates she thought might be affected, Danner said she met with commissioners Tom Gray and Tom Mathers individually “to update them on this situation.”
Mathers and Gray said they did not participate in Danner’s actions or decisions, and neither felt they should have.
The Wednesday press conference comes on the heels of criticism by John Ponikvar, Moffat County Republican Central Committee chairman.
On Tuesday, Ponikvar called for Danner to step down from her bid for another county commission term because he thinks she violated a provision in the Hatch Act that prohibits state and local employees from interfering with or affecting the result of an election or nomination for office.
Although Danner did not say which candidates she met with, Herod announced Tuesday morning she would resign from her position with the county so she could remain eligible as a candidate for county clerk in November. Her decision was based on a letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which oversees the Hatch Act and determined she was in violation.
Hume, a lieutenant with the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, attended the press conference Wednesday, joining about 15 others from the media, public and county government.
Hume withdrew from the coroner’s race Feb. 27 because of what he thought was a Hatch Act violation.
Ponikvar said he felt Danner violated the Hatch Act because she affected Hume and Herod’s candidacies.
He said that by providing the information, she was swaying an election.
“She went out after them,” Ponikvar said. “She was forcing the opinion of the OCS on Lila and K.C.”
Ponikvar contends that dissemination of information to the candidates by Danner on county time is also a violation of the Hatch Act.
“Dealing with politics on county time is not her job as a county commissioner,” he said. “She chose to play politics on county time, and that is a violation, as well.”
However, Danner said she was “not trying to sway a campaign.”
“I did not try to affect their candidacy,” she said. “I am very safe and cautious, and I do things appropriately. I had no intention of that.”
“I did not know anything of the Hatch Act until recently and did not look for the Hatch Act,” she said. “However, when I was given information about the Hatch Act and the potential consequences to the county, I knew those likely to be affected should be informed. I could not ignore the implications to the county. Indeed, the Hatch Act may seem outdated and archaic, but it is federal law.
“I repeat: I cannot ignore the implications to Moffat County. I took an oath (in) December 2008 with my hand on my 1950s Catholic missal to uphold all laws and will continue to do so.”
Commissioner Mathers said he feels Danner has handled herself “very well in the face of what has happened.”
“Audrey is a good commissioner,” he said. “Her style is if someone brings something to her, she gets it done. Unfortunately, because of the way it came to her, she felt like she had to do something about, bring it up and be open.”
Brian Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org.