Local Republicans are accusing the county’s top cop of using taxpayer resources for his political campaign.
The St. Clair County Republican Party’s Central Committee is alleging St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson has used public funds and resources to further his re-election bid. Among their complaints: The sheriff included a department phone line on a recent mailer that sought political contributions.
Watson mostly denied the claims, which he said were nitpicky. He said the phone number was an accident.
In a complaint sent to the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office and County Clerk’s Office, Republican Chairwoman Barbara Viviano accused the sheriff of having campaign materials in the office, confronting deputies for “liking” or sharing social media posts of Republican sheriff’s candidate Nick Gailius, and using the sheriff’s logo on campaign material.
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The complaint also says deputies have been challenged for not voting in last year’s public safety sales tax referendum, which failed.
Both the Clerk’s Office and the State’s Attorney’s Office said on Friday they had yet to receive the complaint.
The GOP complaint includes a copy of a letter sent out by Watson. In the letter, Watson asks for campaign money on letterhead that includes a six-pointed star. The top of the letter says, in bold, “St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department,” which is above another bold line that says, “Sheriff Richard Watson.”
“This November you will be asked to vote for a candidate for St. Clair County Sheriff,” the letter said. “I proudly hold this position. I am asking for your help in the upcoming election.”
Watson goes on to include plans and objectives for the department. The bottom of the letter includes two phone numbers: one which goes to Watson’s assistant in the department, and one for the Sheriff’s Department’s fax machine.
Watson said the phone numbers were included in error.
“That was just overlooked. That’s the most honest answer I could give you,” Watson said. “That phone number on there was purely a mistake and we’re fixing it, immediately.”
Viviano, in her complaint, pushed for an “investigation of the improper political activity taking place in the Sheriff’s office.”
“I was shocked when I saw that he sent out a campaign solicitation letter on what looks like Sheriff’s Department letterhead and was brazen enough to use a Sheriff’s Department phone number and fax number for responses and campaign pledges,” Viviano said. “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 also denied that Sheriff’s Department employees and deputies were being pressured when it comes to their politics.
“I have never heard anything like that. I never do it either. I have never heard it, nobody has ever come to complain to me about it. I don’t know anything about it,” Watson said.
The post office box number on the letter is for his campaign mail. Watson said the letterhead on the letter was designed by his campaign and does not match letterhead traditionally used by the Sheriff’s Department.
He added the badge used on on the letterhead is a generic sheriff’s badge. However, the badges on the campaign mailer and the badges on his department’s official letterhead appear to be remarkably similar; both say “Sheriff St. Clair County.”
Watson said his campaign is not using any public money or resources. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.
In an interview, Viviano pointed out the Watson campaign letter also does not state who paid for it.
“I think we need to bring light that he’s using our taxpayer dollars to go forward and better himself,” Viviano said. “That’s wrong.”
In the complaint, Viviano also included a picture of a sheriff’s squad car right in front of a vehicle with a Watson campaign poster on it during a parade in New Athens.
Watson said parade organizers determined the order of entries, not him.
“They’re the ones who set up the parade,” Watson said. “I didn’t set that up.”
Watson said he is a “rookie” when it comes to elections, and he does count on others to complete campaign tasks.
“The complaint is general, it just looks like somebody trying to complain about things,” Watson said. “I could tell you right now, I don’t run this job politically at all, because … law enforcement is not a Democrat or Republican sport. Yeah, you’ve got to pick a party to run in, but at the end of the day it’s for everybody.”