The Sheriff in Burke County is utilizing county staff and resources to promote his reelection campaign, a clear violation of Georgia campaign finance law.
The ethics violation committed by Sheriff Alfonzo Williams happened on August 8 when the Public Information Director for the Burke County Sheriff’s Office, Clarissa “Clare” Allen, distributed a formal press release to the media announcing the re-election campaign of Williams.
County employees are permitted under the law to volunteer or even work for the campaigns of their employers, but not during the course of the regular duties or in their official capacity. In most cases, a division of duties is clear and concise so as to avoid an perceived impropriety. Another way to achieve this division is by keeping campaign activity on social media and official business on social media on completely separate accounts.
In this instance, however, Williams and the Burke County Sheriff’s Office blur the lines on both counts. Williams routinely uses his official Facebook page not only to promote office activity, but also his campaign, his non-profit, and his own ventures – all of which are a misuse of a public resource – the Burke County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.
Additionally, with regard to the re-election announcement, Allen sent the email from her official Burke County email address, utilized her ‘day job’ email signature, and sent the email during regular business hours on the listserve the office uses for the media. The resources paid for by taxpayers were usurped for campaign use.
It’s worth noting that Williams pays Allen a hefty salary of more than $75,000 annually, plus benefits, which is well above most similar positions in counties of similar size.
Edward Queen, who works as a professor and for the Emory Center for Ethics in Georgia, told Fox5 Atlanta in March that it’s concerning when a Sheriff’s candidate ‘promotes himself more than the safety of the people.’ He called it ‘damaging to the electorate.’
While this conduct is expressly prohibited under campaign finance law in Georgia, it also brings about a host of federal issues. Specifically, 5 C.F.R. 2635.704 through 705 which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, prohibits the personal use of government property and official time, and 5 C.F.R. 2635.702, which prohibits misuse of an employee’s position.
Additionally, if it weren’t for the campaign finance aspect, an issue would still exist under the state constitution’s Gratuities Clause. That clause states that in order to benefit a private venture, the government must receive a substantial benefit for the grant or the use of its assets (whether that is property, personnel, or resources) in order for them to be used for private benefit.
That benefit would also need to be available to any entity similarly situated, so in the event Williams draws opposition in the election cycle, his staffer would need to draft, email, and publish a press release for the opposing candidates as well.
Other Elected Officials Under Fire for the Similar Acts
Clayton County Sheriff Levon Allen is under fire for using tax dollars to campaign, though the allegations are less severe than those of which Williamshas committed. Levon Allen is now-disgraced Sheriff Victor Hill’s godson and has used the defense of ‘employee recruitment’ as his justification for the use of tax dollars for these purposes. A former U.S. Attorney, however, says the behavior doesn’t pass the smell test.
Wiliams has ties to Clayton County’s Sheriff’s Office because he was appointed by Governor Kempin 2021 to serve on the committee to decide if former Sheriff Victor Hill should be suspended from his office due to his, at the time, alleged misdeeds. Williams voted in favor of the removal of the Sheriff and Hill is now in federal prison.