Judge drops case against Richland councilman

dhinshaw@thestate.com March 11, 2013 

Norman Jackson

A long-running election dispute over state highway planner Norman Jackson holding a seat on Richland County Council apparently has ended.

Administrative law judge Walter Brudzinski dismissed the Hatch Act complaint Feb. 13. The case will be dropped March 20 without objection by the Office of Special Counsel, a spokeswoman said.

Jackson’s case was one of “dozens” the agency closed once Congress relaxed regulations in January, spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon said. The Office of Special Counsel enforces the Hatch Act.

Jackson said the case has hung over his head for the past four years.

Still, he continued to protest that he had gotten approval from his supervisors to run for office in 2006 and that he’d been assured he would not be in violation of the federal election law.

“I believed in what I was doing. It was genuinely about service to the citizens,” said Jackson, a 57-year-old Democrat serving his second term. He represents part of Lower Richland County.

Last year, Congress relaxed the law. The change affecting Jackson’s case involved candidates who work for an agency receiving any federal funds.

Now, to fall under the Hatch Act, those candidates must work in positions fully funded with federal money.

Jackson continued to protest the case against him, lodged anonymously in 2008.

The case was based on the fact that he worked for an agency that receives federal funding.

“It was basically a labor dispute,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he tried to address the concerns of federal regulators by retiring but staying on at the S.C. Department of Transportation under the TERI plan. That policy allows experienced employees to return to work without increasing their pensions.

Still, Jackson said he has to leave his job at the highway department in about 2-1/2 years — sooner than he would have preferred.

He is an engineer and works on transportation improvement plans for Lee, Kershaw, Clarendon and Sumter counties.

The Hatch Act restricts partisan political activity of people who work in programs financed by federal loans or grants. At issue is whether a job allows a candidate to curry favor with constituents, blurring the line between work and partisan politics.

In January 2012, Brudzinski ruled that Jackson was warned repeatedly that he was in violation of the Hatch Act during his 2010 re-election campaign. He ordered the DOT to remove Jackson from his state job or face a financial penalty equal to two years of Jackson’s salary.

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board said the judge was wrong to issue that ruling without a hearing and sent the case back to the judge for a hearing that had been scheduled for today.

In the meantime, the case was dismissed.

Jackson’s case was “highly unusual,” said Erica Hamrick, deputy chief of the Hatch Act unit.

Of 451 complaints filed in 2011 claiming violations of the Hatch Act, only three went to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board – the highest level, where Jackson’s case ended.

Violations of the Hatch Act may run the gamet from a public employee soliciting campaign donations to using one’s official authority to garner political support.

One of Jackson’s points in his appeal was that the highway department found a new job for another council member, Kelvin Washington, so he would not be found in violation of the Hatch Act but would not do the same for Jackson.

Washington, who works for S.C. State University now, said that isn’t so.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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