CHIMACUM — Last July, after 37 years in law enforcement including the last 24 with the State Patrol, Sgt. Ken Przygocki was just seven months away from retirement.
Instead of ending his career, the Chimacum resident wanted to run for Jefferson County sheriff.
Przygocki (pronounced Shegusski), 59, certainly felt qualified.
During candidate filing week last June, Przygocki did not file for the position on the basis of a state assistant attorney general’s opinion, he said last week.
Przygocki had become a casualty of the federal Hatch Act.
That left the door open for incumbent Sheriff Tony Hernandez, a Democrat, to win re-election to a four-year term Nov. 2 without opposition.
Przygocki had heeded the words of state Assistant Attorney General Morgan Damerow.
Damerow had said in an e-mailed opinion to the State Patrol that was obtained by the Peninsula Daily News that the Hatch Act restricts the political activities of state, county and municipal employees who perform activities partly or fully funded with federal loans and grants.
“It appears more that it is more than likely that Sgt. [Przygocki] is covered by the Hatch Act restrictions,” Damerow concluded.
Damerow said Przygocki had worked about 21 hours of federal grant-funded overtime.
Przygocki said he had also received FBI training and supervised troopers on federally funded security details for Hood Canal Bridge.
The state Attorney General’s Office would not allow Damerow to be interviewed for this article, and the State Patrol would not waive the attorney-client-privilege relationship between the two agencies that would have allowed that interview.
“I feel cheated,” Przygocki said.
“I don’t negotiate these things,” he said of the FBI training he received and his federally funded duties.
“I’ve got to do my job. Then it’s held against me. How the heck can that be fair? The only way I can actually do this is I have to resign from the Patrol.”
But the law is “very unevenly applied,” Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict suggested Wednesday.
Benedict was a Clallam County Sheriff’s Office sergeant when he defeated Sheriff Joe Martin in 2006 but could have been prohibited from running because the department received federal funds “by a very narrow interpretation” of its provisions, he said.
“The federal government subsidizes virtually every Sheriff’s Office in the state,” Benedict said, adding that three Sheriff’s Office elections were won statewide Nov. 2 by Sheriff’s Office employees or state troopers.
He said he was not aware of its provisions until after he was elected, learning of the Hatch Act during training at the National Sheriffs’ Institute.
“It takes two to tango, and I don’t think someone would have complained if [Przygocki] had run.”
Przygocki was afraid of exactly that, he said.
He was alerted about Hatch Act restrictions last spring when Republican Jefferson County Treasurer Judy Morris “inferred she would file a complaint” under the Hatch Act if he filed for sheriff, he said.
That prompted him to approach his superiors to seek the opinion from the Attorney General’s Office, he said.
Morris emphatically denied she considered filing a complaint — “absolutely not,” she said.
“My suggestion was he look into it because it was conceivable if his agency received federal funds, then the Hatch Act might apply,” Morris said, adding she spoke with an associate of Przygocki’s about the matter.
“The Hatch Act came up. I suggested [Przygocki] look into it so it would not turn out to be negative on his part.”
Przygocki stuck to his account, though he wouldn’t give the name of the associate.
“My impression came from two different sources, and I believe these people,” he said.
Morris was campaign manager for former Port Townsend Police Chief Kristen Anderson when Anderson unsuccessfully ran for county sheriff in 2002.
The Hatch Act’s impact on Anderson’s ability to run “did not even come up,” Morris said.
“None of us even knew about the Hatch Act.”
Hernandez was undersheriff in March 2009 when county commissioners appointed him to the position held by the retiring Mike Brasfield and was elected to fill out the term in November 2009.
Government employees covered under Hatch Act provisions still can be appointed to elected positions.
“If I had not gone through the appointment process, I would have had to potentially resign,” Hernandez said.
A government employee who violates the Hatch Act can be removed from the position covered by the regulations and “could be debarred from holding another Hatch Act position for up to 18 months,” said Justin Martell of the federal Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act violations.
But ignorance of the law can lead to a different result.
“When there is no evidence of a knowing or willful violation, our office is not likely to seek disciplinary action,” Martell said.
Martell said the law covers only partisan elections.
Przygocki would have run as an independent but leans toward the Republican Party, Przygocki said.
Congress passed the Hatch Act in 1939 in response to controversies sparked in the 1936 and 1938 campaigns over political donations by federal employees and the misuse of federal funds, Jason Miller said in a 2009 article, “The Unwise and Unconstitutional Hatch Act: Why State and Local Government Employees Should be Free to Run for Public Office,” in the Southern Illinois Law Journal.
The law prohibits millions of public employees from running for office, Miller said.
“At the same time, many elections in this country go uncontested, and communities suffer from a lack of quality candidates.”
Martell said a goal of the Hatch Act is to ensure that public employees are politically neutral and don’t exert undue influence on government hiring and policies in their capacity as government employees.
“The goal is to prohibit the government from becoming a partisan tool,” he said.
But it also means that Przygocki will be standing on the sidelines while Hernandez is sworn in at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 3 in the county courthouse.
Przygocki is not sure if he will seek election in four years.
“I’m not ready to retire,” Przygocki said.
“I love what I do.”
State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said “a fair number” of retired State Patrol officers are now sheriffs, adding that some do not fall under the provisions of the Hatch Act.
At the same time, Martell’s office commonly receives requests for advisory opinions and complaints about law enforcement officials for violating the Hatch Act, especially when those in law enforcement run for sheriff.
Benedict suggested situations such as Przygocki’s prove the law needs to be changed.
“The original intent was to prevent federal employees from using that influence to sway local elections,” Benedict said.
“It’s a real mockery now.”
Federal legislation is pending to exempt law enforcement agencies from the Hatch Act “just because it’s so confusing and convoluted,” Benedict added.
________Senior staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at email@example.com.