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VOL. 125 | NO. 137 | Friday, July 16, 2010

Oldham Resignation Leaves Behind Questions for Future Elections

By Bill Dries

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The U.S. Justice Department’s interest in the race for Shelby County sheriff has added an election eve surprise to the contest that could have longer lasting implications.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Bill Oldham, the Republican nominee for sheriff, has resigned from the department’s No. 2 position.

He did so after learning the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel in Washington was preparing to file or already had filed a civil action in Chancery Court alleging Oldham had violated the federal Hatch Act. The violation was that Oldham had run for sheriff while on leave as chief deputy.

The Hatch Act is federal legislation that governs political conduct by elected officials and government employees during election seasons.

The chief deputy’s position has historically been held by men who have at least seriously considered if not actually run for the job of sheriff.

But two recent opinions from the Tennessee attorney general’s office that apparently went unnoticed locally may dramatically alter future races for sheriff.

Attorney General Robert Cooper opined that a deputy sheriff cannot run for sheriff.

“If the deputy sheriff’s position or duties are in connection with an activity financed in whole or in part by federal loans or grants, then the federal Hatch Act would prohibit him from running for the office of sheriff unless he first resigned from employment as a deputy sheriff,” Cooper wrote.

The opinion was requested by Republican state representative Mike Harrison of Rogersville.

A 2008 opinion expressed a similar opinion about a Tennessee state trooper running for sheriff. That opinion was requested by State House Speaker Kent Williams.

Another part of Cooper’s 2009 opinion deals with bans on campaigning and candidacies by sheriff’s deputies under the state’s 1974 County Sheriff’s Civil Service Law. But the state law makes exceptions for the sheriff, the sheriff’s personal secretary, the jail cook and the chief deputy in counties that choose to exempt the No. 2 position.

“Nobody’s going to run me out of the race,” Oldham told The Daily News. “I’m going to run hard. I have absolutely worked my entire career to display my leadership and integrity. I’m going to continue to do that. This is the right thing to do.”

Oldham became chief deputy in 2002 shortly after Mark Luttrell took office as sheriff. Before that Oldham had served as Memphis police director, retiring in 1999.

Officials with the Office of Special Counsel were contacted by telephone and e-mail by The Daily News but had not responded by press time. An online check of records in the Chancery Court clerk’s office showed no sign of a complaint.

“This act is not a criminal act, it is a civil procedural act and as such the remedy for the possible violation was to either withdraw from the race, which I will never do, or resign my position,” Oldham said in the formal statement. “Therefore, I have elected to resign my position with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office effective 7/13/10.”

In the past, Shelby County sheriffs commonly held positions with the department.

In 2002, outgoing sheriff A.C. Gilless required those in the department running for sheriff to take an unpaid leave of absence until the elections were decided. Oldham did that.

Assistant Chief Larry Young is the acting chief deputy sheriff in his absence.

Five of the eight contenders for sheriff in the May Democratic and Republicans primaries, including Oldham, were sheriff’s deputies at the time of the elections.

“We wanted to make sure that there was no possibility of any impropriety. We’ve heard that an official complaint has been filed,” Oldham told The Daily News. “The remedy is I can either jump out of the race, which I’m not going to do, or resign my position. So I’m going to make it a moot point and just go ahead and resign my position. I was advised all along that I was doing the right thing taking a leave of absence.”

No one is copping to alerting Justice Department attorneys in Washington to the news that someone on the sheriff’s department was again running for sheriff.

“I wouldn’t. That’s not my style,” said Democratic nominee Randy Wade when contacted by The Daily News. “It’s a free country. People have the right to decide. I wouldn’t want to see anything other than that. … I’m so glad that he decided to stay in the race.”

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