LARGO — Federal lawyers have accused Pinellas County sheriff's Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri of breaking the law by running for sheriff while overseeing programs with federal money.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel gave Gualtieri until Sept. 9 to resign or drop out of the race. Gualtieri said he'll do neither, and will fight any attempt to oust him.
Gualtieri is accused of violating the federal Hatch Act, which bars employees of the executive branch of government from engaging in many political activities, including running for a partisan office, if their job duties are in connection with federal funding. Incumbents are exempt.
Gualtieri said the "arcane" law doesn't apply to him because the Sheriff's Office is not part of the executive branch under Florida's Constitution. He said past court cases in Florida and other states back him up, though others have resigned under similar allegations.
If pressed, Gualtieri said he would take the federal counsel's office to court. He, not the Sheriff's Office, will pay the legal bills, said Gualtieri, an attorney who is also the Sheriff's Office's general counsel.
"You've got what I think is an overreaching federal act," Gualtieri said, calling the accusations politically motivated. "This is not something that should affect the race. This is not something that should be made more than it is."
The Special Counsel's Office singled out two ways Gualtieri fell under the law: funding the Pinellas sheriff receives for a facial recognition system and an after-school program. Gualtieri oversees supervisors of both programs.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has nearly $30 million in federal grants and other funding for various programs this year, according to a list provided to investigators. It involves firing ranges, child protection and bulletproof vests, among others.
In recent years, Hatch Act cases involving local sheriff's candidates have increased because those agencies are receiving federal funding more often, said Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of the Hatch Act unit in the Special Counsel's Office.
A Collier County undersheriff running for sheriff ultimately resigned after a complaint in 2008. But in Okaloosa County, a chief deputy fought a similar allegation in 2010 in court — making a case similar to Gualtieri's argument — and is now sheriff there.
Locally, Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee rose through their agencies to be elected sheriff without Hatch Act trouble. In fact, Coats ran for office for almost three years while chief deputy with the blessing of his predecessor, Republican Everett Rice — who is running in 2012 against Gualtieri.
Rice said Gualtieri's comment the law is arcane is "ridiculous coming from an attorney and a law enforcement officer."
"There's plenty of laws that arcane. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be followed," Rice said.
Though Rice maintained Wednesday that a non-incumbent should "always" have to resign, he didn't require it of Coats. Rice tried to differentiate the cases by saying he made sure Coats didn't politick wrongly, and federal officials never notified him of violations.
Coats announced Aug. 25 he will resign as of Nov. 7 to spend more time with his wife, Cat, as she fights cancer. Gov. Rick Scott will appoint an interim sheriff. Coats has endorsed Gualtieri.
If the federal officials try to discipline Gualtieri, they could take their case to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board to decide. The board can order the employee removed from the job.
Cases at the merit board involving sheriffs are rare because law enforcement officers often fix the problem themselves by resigning or quitting the campaign, Hamrick said.
Hamrick declined to comment on Gualtieri's case because the agency doesn't identify individuals involved in inquiries.
Gualtieri, 49, a Republican, disclosed the federal inquiry Wednesday in response to a public records request by the St. Petersburg Times.
"For me looking at it, it appears he's in violation," said retired sheriff's Capt. Tim Ingold, a Republican running in 2012 against Gualtieri. "If that's in fact the case, I would expect him to follow the letter of the law. If it's not applicable, it's a non-issue.
The federal investigation began in mid July after the agency received information about potential violations, according to a letter to the county from the Special Counsel's Office. Gossip on a potential violation has gone for months on the leoaffairs.com message board frequented by cops — chatter Gualtieri and Ingold saw, too.
Gualtieri said he received the Aug. 25 letter that detailed the office's finding at 5:30 p.m. Monday with the general office mail.
The office didn't disclose who complained.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.