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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Jon Greiner

WASHINGTON — Jon Greiner's election to the Utah Senate caused his firing as Ogden police chief. Philadelphia transit cop Matthew Arlen was barred from a local school board race in Pennsylvania.

Both were blindsided by a 1939 law that prohibits federal employees from running in partisan elections but also places the same restriction on state and local government workers whose jobs are connected to federal dollars.

Three committee chairmen in the Senate and one in the House say it's time to update the Hatch Act. Bills in both houses still would prohibit federal employees from participating in partisan political activities, while ending federal prohibitions on state and local government employees seeking elected office.

The Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act, supports change.

"Fixing this broken law will cost taxpayers nothing and will demonstrate respect for the independence of state and local elections," said Carolyn Lerner, who runs the office.

The law is named for its author, the late Sen. Carl Atwood Hatch, a Democrat from New Mexico who served from 1933 to 1949. It was aimed at ending patronage abuses on Depression-era public works projects — where people were sometimes coerced to work in a campaign as a condition for getting a job, or had to kick back a portion of their pay as a political contribution.

Arlen, the policeman whose partner is an explosives detection dog trained with federal money, said, "How much influence can my dog have over what I could do on the school board?"

Several state and local officials said in interviews they were investigated by the Office of Special Counsel after their opponents filed a complaint.

It's not uncommon for them to be blindsided by the law, no one more than Greiner. The Ogden police chief was fired several months ago after he was found to have violated the law because he was elected to the state Senate in 2006.

Greiner's case, however, shows how loose the connection with federal funds can be.

The ex-chief said he signed a quarterly report for a federal grant to upgrade the police dispatch system — money that was going to his county, not his department.

"The county said they needed a law enforcement signature, and I was the point of contact for the grant. Nobody knew this Hatch thing was even there," Greiner said.

Greiner, who served one four-year term, also was found to be covered under the law because a lieutenant in his department, assigned to a county law enforcement task force, had applied for a federal grant for bullet-proof vests.

"He wasn't working for me," Greiner said. "He was managing two justice assistance grants for the county."

Greiner not only was fired, but said he was banned by the federal government from serving as a law enforcement officer in Utah for 18 months, counting from January of this year. State and local agencies have the choice of firing violators or having federal funds withheld.

One provision of the proposed makeover would allow more flexibility in imposing penalties on violators.

Greiner, 60, was backed by the city of Ogden and had been chief for 16 years. He earned $110,000. He said he's now living off a $75,000 severance package.