“Are you prepared to take the oath of office?”
That was the question Judge Robert Headrick asked Blount County commissioners-elect as he stood before them on Wednesday, Sept. 1, ready to administer the oath of office.
No negative answers were heard.
Less than 90 minutes later, District 1 Seat B commissioner Shawn Carter announced his resignation from the commission, saying a friend who is a Virginia lawyer called him and explained that he wasn’t eligible to serve.
Turns out he wasn’t prepared to take the oath after all. The federal Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from serving in positions that are elected in a partisan election.
Carter, a Republican, beat incumbent Democrat commissioner David Ballard in the general election. Ballard said Wednesday that during the campaign he heard rumors that Carter was violating the Hatch Act.
“I had to fight back people working for me who wanted to bring it up, but I didn’t think it was my job to bring that up,” Ballard said.
Ballard said Carter simply wasn’t vetted properly at multiple points in the campaign, from when he turned in his petition to run to when the League of Women Voters released his questionnaire showing where he worked. “That should have raised flags,” Ballard said.
The former commissioner said the print media, the Republican Party or the Election Commission could have vetted Carter. “It’s not my job to vet him, although I could have, but that was not where I chose to go.”
Ballard said Carter should have known better. “What it comes down to is: Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Ballard said.
Newly-elected commission chair Kenneth Melton said Carter is officially still a commissioner until the commissioners can accept his resignation during a special called meeting on Thursday, Sept. 16. The body will decide in October who to name to fill the seat until the next county-wide election in 2012, Melton said.
When asked why he ran for the Republican nomination for commission and then faced-off against Ballard in the general election, Carter said he was unaware there was a problem because he ran unsuccessfully in 2006 and nothing was said.
“It was in the last couple of days that I was researching it, and today was when I got it confirmed, so I said something about it,” he said. “I just found out about it when we had the break after the swearing-in ceremony. That was why I was late getting into the meeting.”
Carter said he had called a friend who is an attorney in Virginia. He didn’t want to identify the lawyer’s name. “I ran four years ago and didn’t know anything about (the Hatch Act). When I was messing around on the Internet, I came across it. I called him to see if he could help me,” Carter said. “He called me back (Wednesday morning) about 10:30 because we had just got out on break. He said I should resign because the Hatch Act covers me.”
Carter said that at the moment he took office, he thought he was prepared to take the oath until his friend called him.
Blount Today contacted Beth Barnett, communications manager for the U.S. Postal Service Tennessee District. “All Postal employees do fall under the Hatch Act requirements,” said Barnett. “All federal employees do.”
Barnett said the Hatch Act states a number of things, including that employees may not be candidates for public office in partisan elections. “This would apply,” she said to Carter’s situation.
Republican Party Chair Susan Mills said that concerns regarding whether Carter was violating the Hatch Act surfaced days before the swearing-in. “But we didn’t have anything definite until the day of the commission swearing-in,” she said.
Mills said Carter was a properly qualified as far as state requirements go. “The Hatch Act is between him and his employer, but as far as state election laws go, he was a properly-qualified candidate, and this does not render the election result invalid,” she said.
Mills said the Blount County Republican Party “makes every attempt to insure that our Republican candidates are qualified and capable for the office they are seeking.
“Shawn has displayed courage, honor and integrity in coming forth with this disclosure,” she said. “Shawn won 68 percent of the vote in his district, which shows he is well respected in his community.”
Ballard said that while he did not want his name put up to be nominated to fill the seat, he might run to fill the seat in the 2012 election. “Would I run for that job again? I would definitely consider it,” Ballard said.