GOP leader, opponent call for investigation into claims St. Clair County sheriff violated campaign laws
An investigation should be launched following allegations that St. Clair County Sheriff Richard "Rick" Watson violated local and state campaign laws, according to the county's Republican leader and Watson's opponent in the sheriff's election.
Barb Viviano, chair of the St. Clair Republican Party Central Committee, sent a letter to State's Attorney Brendan Kelly and County Clerk Thomas Holbrook on Aug. 7 demanding a look into whether Watson, a Democrat, used jail resources and jail phone numbers to solicit campaign donations.
"I was shocked when I saw that he sent out a campaign solicitation letter on what looks like Sheriff Department letterhead and was brazen enough to use a Sheriff Department phone number and Fax number for responses and campaign pledges,” Viviano said in statement. ”Tax dollars pay for those phones and the salaries of those who are answering. That phone number goes right to the desk of Watson’s assistant who is a county employee.”
Watson, who is being challenged by former Fairview Heights police chief Nick Gailius in the November elections, largely denies the allegations, but said a mistake was made to include his work telephone numbers on campaign literature that went out ahead of the March primary election.
The local GOP complaint focuses in part on a campaign flyer that includes a letterhead stating, "St. Clair County Sheriff's Office." It also includes a six-pointed star with the words "Sheriff St. Clair County."
It states, "I personally want to thank you for supporting myself and the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department and for the support of these (named) initiatives in place now and as well as those planned." It also says that an envelope is enclosed "for pledging support."
Employees of Watson's office allegedly also have been challenged over political activities conducted in private time, for failing to vote in last year's sales tax referendum, and for liking and sharing the social media posts of Gailius.
The state's attorney should initiate an investigation, Gailius told the Record
"If laws have been broken, I look forward to the prosecutor taking action," Watson's Republican challenger said.
After the complaint was brought to the sheriff's attention last week, Kelly said Watson "requested this office provide some legal advice to make sure he and his folks are following all appropriate requirements in the future and guidance is being provided to him in accordance with our obligations under state law."
He added that the county's public integrity unit has also received the letter from the GOP.
St. Clair County officials, including Kelly, Holbrook and Watson, comprise a voter integrity unit where anyone who has suspicions of voter fraud can call a hotline phone number to make a report. A link to a press release issued by Holbrook's office on March 2 announcing the hotline, ahead of the March 20 primary, was disabled due to a "redesigned and rearranged" St. Clair County website.
"My general response is there is nothing to it, except (it) did have the two phone numbers," Watson told the Record. "That was a mistake."
On the letterhead, Watson said the flyer was nothing like his official letters, including the latter has two huge stars as opposed to one small one in the campaign literature.
Responding to the allegation that employees of his office were pressured or challenged over political activities, the sheriff said, "I was never told about, never told by any employee about that."
"The motivation is to try and stir up something to get guys in newspapers to write about it," Watson claimed.
The sheriff said his record over 40 years in law enforcement is clean.
"I am a professional law enforcement guy, not a politician," he said. "Honestly, it is what it is and the only wrong thing (included) with the complaint are those two numbers. I own up to that, made a mistake."
But Gailius, who retired as Fairview Heights police chief in June, said the question has to be asked whether the flyers "generated political donations."
"People may be thinking they are supporting the sheriff, rather than a person running for office," he said. "An investigation should be expected."
He added that the "sheriff's decision to use his office for political purposes is disappointing."
Gailius, who admits he will be the underdog in the race to unseat Watson, sheriff since 2012, denies this is simply political posturing by the party.
"Some specific statutes are cited, allegations are made in the complaint, allegations of violations of the election code, violations of county ordinances," he said.
Blaming Republicans for stirring the pot is putting the "cart before the horse," he said.
"Flyers asking for donations would not have been put out if this was not a campaign year," Gailius said. "The Republican Party is pointing this out, and it is not something that should be happening."
Some may say "it is not a big deal, but it is very disappointing because we should expect higher standards," Gailius argued.