SALT LAKE CITY — It's the same thing only different for Republican Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen, who is facing a complaint that his re-election candidacy violates federal law because of his full-time job as chief of the Unified Fire Authority.
A complaint filed this week with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel claims Jensen's candidacy violates the Hatch Act because Unified Fire receives loans and grants from the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Agriculture and Interior. The Hatch Act prohibits state and local candidates from running for partisan election if their job has a connection to federal funding.
"Mr. Jensen is aware that his candidacy for partisan political office may violate the Hatch Act," reads the complaint, filed by seasoned Utah Democrat Joe Hatch, acting as attorney for the state and Salt Lake County Democratic Party.
Joe Hatch, a former Salt Lake County Councilman, points out he has no relation to the federal act's 1939 namesake, then-senator from New Mexico Carl Hatch. Jensen could not be reached Friday for comment.
The complaint mimics one filed against Jensen four years ago, but several things have changed since then. Jensen was the deputy chief last time and is now chief. Also since then, a Hatch Act complaint in Utah that stuck resulted in Ogden police chief Jon Greiner having to resign after a federal panel ruled he violated the Hatch Act in his successful candidacy for state Senate in 2006. He served one term.
Also in the mix is federal legislation announced March 7 that would update the Hatch Act. The Office of Special Counsel investigates Hatch Act violations and recommended the legislation, which would put more distance between state and local politics and federal intervention. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is one of the Senate sponsors.
Hatch said the Unified Fire Authority Board juggled responsibilities after the complaint was filed to shield the chief from decisions affecting federal funding. Hatch said he doesn't see the change as substantive. "Why is the UFA putting their taxpayers at risk on this? They're going to have to hire legal counsel to pursue this (complaint). If they lose, they're going to have to fire Jensen or pay a big fine," he said.
Hatch said the attention the aging federal law is getting in Congress is important. He sees the best remedy as being an all-out ban on federal involvement in the local political process. "I want firemen, I want policemen, I want schoolteachers to run for public office," he said. "But when you take one of those executive government jobs, you should be saying to the public 'While I'm serving in this role, I will not seek partisan office.'"
Hatch Act interpretations could also affect Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who is the director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District — which receives federal funding. The Alliance for a Better Utah has filed a Hatch Act complaint against him.
Republican Steve DeBry, a colleague of Jensen's on the County Council, is a Division Commander with the Unified Police Department. Hatch said he disagreed with a previous campaign-season complaint against DeBry and that the Utah Democrats did not file a complaint against him this season because his job does not rise to the level of overseeing federal funds.
The pending debate in Congress is also on the radar with Tim Chambless, political science professor at the University of Utah. "It raises the question: Who makes the decisions? Who is the sovereign? Is it the Office of Special Counsel at the federal level, or something that can be resolved in the state of Utah?"
In Jensen's case, not yet known is how long the investigation into the complaint against him will take. "The interpretation of this law takes time. Meanwhile, the calendar is flipping and we're less than seven months from the election date," Chambless said.
The Office of Special Counsel has had Hatch Act reform in its gunsights since Carolyn Lerner became the investigative and prosecutorial agency's chief in June, said spokeswoman Ann O'Hanlon. "There's just some absurdity with federal bureaucracy getting in the way of democracy," she said. "In the meantime, it's our job to enforce the current law."