Steamboat Springs All Crimes Enforcement Team Cmdr. Garrett Wiggins is withdrawing his candidacy for Routt County sheriff because of concerns about possible Hatch Act violations. However, Wiggins plans to re-enter the race as soon as next week once his office wraps up spending of the federal COPS grant that is the source of the potential Hatch Act conflict.
Wiggins has been looking into the legitimacy of his candidacy for the past couple of weeks, since the Hatch Act was brought up in Moffat County as a potential roadblock to some candidacies there.
The federal Hatch Act was enacted in 1939 to prevent federal employees from taking part in partisan political activity for the purpose of ensuring that government institutions function fairly. It was extended in 1940 to include state and local employees. The Hatch Act has been interpreted to prevent federal employees from running for partisan office in most cases.
According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that oversees the Hatch Act, “The Hatch Act restricts the political activity of individuals principally employed by state or local executive agencies and who work in connection with programs financed in whole or in part by federal loans or grants.”
ACET is in year three of receiving a federal COPS grant, which is given to the city of Craig and Craig Police Department and then passed on to ACET. Wiggins said the COPS grant is the only federal funding his office receives.
ACET primarily is funded through several local law enforcement agencies. Wiggins’ salary is paid by the Steamboat Springs Police Department, and he is listed as an employee of that department. Other agencies, including the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office and Craig Police Department, contribute to ACET’s operational expenses.
Although Wiggins said his attorneys don’t think his candidacy violates the Hatch Act, he is withdrawing to avoid controversy and squash any future allegations of unethical conduct.
“I believe it’s in my best interest to withdraw from the race until the grant is completed,” Wiggins said Friday.
He expects ACET to make a final equipment purchase with COPS grant funds early next week, at which point he said he’ll complete the grant paperwork and then refile paperwork with the state to become a candidate again.
Wiggins also said the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that oversees the Hatch Act, indicated that candidates are permitted to withdraw and then re-enter races. It’s Wiggins’ understanding that the provision of the Hatch Act that restricts candidates who receive federal funding from running for office doesn’t necessarily apply if that funding source has expired, as would be the case with the COPS grant.
Erica Hamrick, chief deputy of the Office of Special Counsel’s Hatch Act Unit, confirmed Wiggins' assessment. She said it's feasible that a candidate's status in relation to the Hatch Act could change in a matter of weeks if his or her use of federal funding had expired and the relevant grants were completed.
Wiggins would have to refile his candidate paperwork with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. He said Friday that employees of that office weren’t even aware of the Hatch Act when he phoned to tell them his intentions.
“Everyone wants me to continue in the race,” Wiggins said. “I’m going to carry on.”
Wiggins is expected to face fellow Republican candidate David Smith Jr. in the August primary. Reached Friday, Smith said he doesn’t think the Hatch Act should exclude Wiggins from the race.
“I don’t even see how it can remotely apply in Wiggins’ case,” Smith said. “We’re both running on the merits of who’s going to be best for the job, not trying to find a way to push each other out through a loophole in an obscure law.
“I think this is a tempest in a teapot. I’m not sure why it got started, but it’s obviously something that bothers Garrett, and rightfully so. I don’t think it’s fair.”
Wiggins said Friday that he doesn’t think there was any intent by others to force him out of the race by using the Hatch Act. Instead, he said it was Moffat County Sheriff’s Office investigator and EMT battalion chief K.C. Hume who first made him aware of the act. Hume dropped his bid for Moffat County coroner Feb. 27 because of the Hatch Act.
Also in Moffat County, Chief Deputy Clerk Lila Herod resigned from her position so she could continue her campaign for Moffat County clerk and recorder. Herod applied for a grant for $18,450 from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission through the Help America Vote Act to fund improvements at the Hamilton Community Center, which serves as a polling place. The Office of Special Counsel told her to resign from her position as deputy clerk and Moffat County election supervisor or withdraw from the race.
Wiggins said he supports legislative efforts at the federal and state levels to update the Hatch Act.
“This act really does restrict and inhibit small communities like ours from recruiting candidates to run for office,” Wiggins said. “I don’t know any government agency that doesn’t receive some type of federal funding.”
Hamrick acknowledged that her office has seen an increase in Hatch Act inquiries this spring as candidates file for elections across the country.
Wiggins also mentioned a provision of the Hatch Act that exempts existing elected officials from its provisions, meaning they can receive federal funding and continue to run for office, but their potential challenges are restricted.
“This has been extremely stressful for me,” he said. “I was at the point where I was ready to say, ‘The heck with it.’”
Wiggins plans to be back in the race in time for the April 10 county assembly, during which Routt County Republican delegates will vote on Wiggins and Smith. Each must receive 30 percent of that vote to have their names included on the August primary election ballot. The candidate who receives the highest percentage of votes at the county assembly will have his name appear at the top of the primary ballot.