Sheriff candidate: Opponent broke law
One candidate for Yuma County sheriff is alleging that another broke federal law by throwing his hat in the ring before retiring from his government job.
Rick Sandoval contends that his opponent, Leon Wilmot, violated a politicking law known as the Hatch Act, which bars people whose salary is partially or fully funded by federal money from running for partisan office.
Wilmot, a Republican, filed candidacy papers in January while he still held the title of chief deputy in the Yuma County Sheriff's Office. It's a job he retired from about a week ago after 27 years with the department.
Before this, though, Sandoval's team submitted a complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Agency spokeswoman Ann O'Hanlon said Monday that under federal privacy laws, she could not confirm the case being under investigation.
Wilmot did say that he told an office representative about his eventual retirement and said that the case would be closed.
Wilmot said the claims by Sandoval, a Democrat, are unfounded, and he's disappointed in his opponent's tack.
“I've got a guy here that's saying he has 37 years of law enforcement experience — 18 years as an executive — that wants to run for the office of sheriff but yet would run his campaign by trying to make allegations against his opponent that are unsubstantiated … That's not how I run a ship. I don't run on allegations,” Wilmot said. “I run on facts.”
Sandoval, a former federal agent and one-time Yuma County sheriff's deputy himself, argues that Wilmot was covered by the Hatch Act because his job was tied to several federal and state grant-funded initiatives from agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. The law can apply to employees of federal, state and local agencies.
Sandoval said as a federal employee, he was aware of the law, and he was reminded by a controversy earlier this year in the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, where the chief deputy also tried to run for the top spot — and was told he'd violated the act.
Sandoval said he bumped up his own retirement, which he took this year, by a few weeks so as not to violate laws. “I mean, what example would that set?”
O'Hanlon said that in many cases, people in violation of the Hatch Act are instructed to either quit their campaign, quit their jobs or change jobs so they are no longer tied to federal funds. In some rare cases, she said, violations carry monetary penalties — future grant money can be withheld.
Forced removal from the ballot is not one of the punishments, although that's not one of Sandoval's goals anyway.
“I don't want him (Wilmot) not to campaign. I want him to play by the rules.”
Sandoval's campaign manager, Steve Mercado, filed a complaint with federal investigators in May. In June, he sent similar documents to Greg Ferguson, the chairman of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors, to address the “Mini Hatch Act,” a state law that mirrors the federal one.
“We did our homework to make a run for sheriff,” Mercado said.
Wilmot said he also did his research.
With the Pinal County case in mind, Wilmot said, he and current Sheriff Ralph Ogden determined that the situation there was different and Wilmot shouldn't face similar problems. He noted that Ogden was on active duty with YCSO as chief deputy himself when he ran for his first term in 1992, as was his predecessor John Phipps when he won his first term in 1980.
“When we looked at our operations as a whole, there were no signs of any violations that we were concerned with in regards to me running for the office of sheriff,” Wilmot said.
Wilmot's retirement became effective Sept. 30. He said he put in for it about a month ago, but he had been thinking about it all year. He said the timing allowed him to tie up loose ends at work and use earned time off — and now he can dedicate more time to his campaign and prepare for the transition if he is victorious on Election Day. He remains an unpaid reserve deputy.
Both candidates have extensive law enforcement experience. Sandoval started with the Imperial County Sheriff's Office in 1974, then served with the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the U.S. Customs Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He retired this year as a supervisor at the ICE office in El Centro.
Wilmot joined the Yuma County Sheriff's Office as a reserve deputy in 1985 while he was a Marine based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. He was hired full time in 1987 after he finished four years of military service.
Both men are confident they've made the right interpretation of the law.
“I've always believed in honesty, integrity and ethics,” Wilmot said. “You can never compromise those because once you compromise those, they can never be gained back.”
Sandoval said he's likewise motivated by accountability and integrity, not mud-slinging.
Although Wilmot is now retired, Sandoval maintains that his opponent spent several months in violation.
“I feel confident in the system. I feel confident in the community,” he said. “Come Nov. 6, we shall see.”
Rick Sandoval's Hatch Act allegations against Leon Wilmot are among a handful of concerns and complaints he and his campaign manager, Steve Mercado, have raised over Wilmot's run. Another came up in August, when Mercado asked Yuma County Attorney Jon Smith to investigate the validity of Wilmot's campaign, including the signatures on his nominating petitions.
The reason: Wilmot's initial political committee statement of organization indicated that he had both a campaign committee and a standing political committee when he did not have the latter. By the time he amended his form in April, he had, among other campaign activities, collected most of his signatures. Mercado said the signatures collected before correcting his form should have been voided. Had they been tossed, Wilmot wouldn't have had enough signatures to remain on the ballot.
Sandoval also briefly brought his objection to the Yuma County Board of Supervisors before it canvassed the results of the primary election, which Wilmot handily won over write-in Republican Sandy Kamei.
One of Smith's attorney's responded, acknowledging Wilmot's first form was filled out incorrectly, but its amendment did not invalidate the statement of having a campaign committee.
“Thus, his activities during the initial filing and the amended filing were not in violation of (state law),” wrote deputy county attorney Theresa Fox.
Wilmot said he simply made a mistake on the form.