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Federal agency goes after NY sheriff who flew Trump flag; says he violated Hatch Act

Trump 2020 KAG flags in North Carolina (Dan Scavino/WikiCommons)
March 15, 2021

A New York sheriff received a warning from federal investigators last week who said flying a “Making America Great” flag in a pro-Trump boat parade last summer violated the Hatch Act. reported that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) sent the warning to Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton after investigating a complaint that the sheriff’s office Marine Patrol boat with Hilton and three uniformed deputies on board displayed an American flag featuring former President Donald Trump and his campaign slogan “Making America Great” at the “Trump flotilla” event on Oneida Lake in August.

“Because you used an official agency resource to promote a presidential candidate, thus giving the impression that the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office endorsed that candidate, OSC determined that you violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using your official authority to affect an election,” Erica S. Hamrick, a deputy chief in the OSC’s Hatch Act Unit, said in the letter to Hilton.

The Hatch Act, a decades-old law limiting federal executive branch personnel from engaging in political activity while working, excluding both the president and vice president, falls under the jurisdiction of the OSC, which asserted in its letter that the sheriff has “duties in connection with federally funded programs … covered by the Hatch Act”, Oswego County News Now reported.

Employees who fall under the Hatch Act are barred from “using their official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the results of an election.” They are prohibited from using agency resources for political activity.

The letter concluded, “Please be advised that if you engage in any future prohibited political activity while employed in a Hatch Act-covered position, OSC would consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law that could result in disciplinary action.”

Oswego County Legislature Chairman Jim Weatherup said the OSC did not plan on taking any  disciplinary action at the moment.

“We received a letter today in response to a complaint regarding county Sheriff Hilton’s participation in a Trump flotilla campaign rally,” Weatherup wrote. “The Office of Special Counsel has issued a warning letter to the sheriff and decided to close the matter without further action.”

In a statement released Thursday, Hilton said he assured Weatherup and additional members of the Legislature that it wouldn’t happen again, noting that the marine patrol unit was working security at the pro-Trump event when a participant gave them the flag. Hilton said he personally approved subsequently displaying it during the flotilla.  

“I did this to show support for the event participants and for our president, who has supported law enforcement at a time when many groups are unjustly vilifying our profession,” Hilton said in another statement released in August. “To do so was my decision only, not my deputies’, and I take full and sole responsibility for it.”

“While I stand by my personal beliefs, I do regret that some people, veterans in particular, were uncomfortable with the display of an altered American flag. There was no disrespect intended,” he added.

Hilton continued, “I respect the right of people to have a critical opinion of what I did – this is America after all, and freedom of speech is part of what the flag stands for. But let’s keep a clear-headed perspective here: I flew a political flag on taxpayers’ property, yet many of the people criticizing me for that also defend rioters who destroy taxpayers’ property.”