CARTHAGE, Mo. —
Norman Rouse, counsel for the Jasper County Commission, said Friday an investigation is under way into whether Sheriff Archie Dunn may have broken any laws when T-shirts were passed out to students in three schools as part of the DARE program that also contained a message on the back that read: “Re-elect Archie Dunn, Jasper County Sheriff.”
A bill for the T-shirts distributed at Sarcoxie schools was submitted to the county, but officials have refused payment, according to John Bartosh, presiding commissioner.
“We think it’s against the law; we’ve turned it over to legal, and they’re investigating,” Bartosh said Thursday night after attending a meeting of the Sarcoxie School Board at which officials there discussed their concerns about the T-shirts.
Shirts congratulating DARE program graduates and containing the campaign advertisement also were distributed to students in DARE (Drug Awareness Resistance Education) programs at Avilla and Jasper elementary schools. A sheriff’s deputy oversees the classes in the three schools; Dunn added the training in the rural schools several years ago after voters approved the Law Enforcement Sales Tax.
The sheriff in a statement issued Friday said he personally paid for the advertisements as a sponsor, which has been done in the past by other sponsors to reduce costs of the shirts.
But he said he understood the reservations raised by school officials about involving the schools, and school students, in political campaigns.
“I can understand it once it’s been pointed out, but it didn’t enter my mind at the time,” he said.
Dunn said his attorney, Bill Fleischaker, said he had done nothing illegal and had not violated any ethics laws, since he was treated the same as sponsors on DARE shirts in previous years.
In a written statement released Friday morning, Dunn said he would reimburse the county for shirts paid for by public funds, but he corrected himself in a telephone call later.
“There’ll be no reimbursement since the bill wasn’t paid. I’ll pay the bill,” he said.
He said the county will receive no bill for Avilla and Jasper schools, because shirts for those schools were donated.
According to a purchase order submitted to the county auditor’s office, the Sarcoxie shirts cost $456. The order noted a $150 donation, and sought reimbursement for $306 from Law Enforcement Sales Tax funds.
Julie Allen, head of the Missouri Ethics Commission, would not speak to the Jasper County situation but cited a provision of state ethics law that specifies public funds cannot be used to support or oppose a political candidate.
“In general, if a political subdivision pays for something that advocates for or opposes a political candidate, that’s prohibited by law,” she said.
Members of the Sarcoxie School Board discussed the issue Thursday night and Superintendent Kevin Goddard said he had written a letter of complaint to Dunn and the DARE officer emphasizing the district cannot be involved in political campaigns, and its students may not be used in such.
Goddard said his own daughter was among DARE graduates on May 2, but he did not learn about the advertising on the shirt until he received two complaints. He said he wrote to Dunn, citing a May 10 letter emphasizing that school board policies limit advertising in the schools and specifically prohibit political campaigning.
“While it would not be realistic to try to rectify the situation at this time, I would remind the sheriff’s office to avoid such advertisements in the future within schools,” he wrote.
Classes have ended for the year at Avilla Schools and no official was available to answer questions. School Superintendent Rick Stark in Jasper said he has learned that the shirts were passed out at the DARE graduation a couple of weeks ago. He said he had received no calls from parents or others, and was not aware of the contents of the shirts until Friday.
“If I had known, I would have said it’s not a good idea for the school district to get involved in politics,” he said.
John Lewis, a member of the Sarcoxie School Board, said he was very troubled by the shirts being passed out in the school and wanted “to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
Lewis is a supporter of Randee Kaiser, one of Dunn’s opponents in the sheriff’s race, and has given $500 to his campaign. Lewis said he would have raised the same objections if the advertising had come from Kaiser.
“This has nothing to do with it; it’s using our schoolchildren as campaign ads.”
Bartosh, who was at Thursday night’s meeting at Lewis’ request, said the commission started looking into the issue earlier in the week when members received phone calls from some parents in Avilla. He said the bill for Sarcoxie shirts arrived in the auditor’s office on Wednesday, but payment was refused.
“We can’t pay for political stuff with government money,” he said.
Dunn said he would have attended the meeting in Sarcoxie to discuss the issue with board members, but he was not invited.
The sheriff earlier had complained that he would not be informed of meetings of the County Commission when actions would be taken concerning his office. Commissioners in recent months have revised their public notice policies to list those discussions on the agenda, which is posted at the courthouse and on the county’s website.
The sheriff and commission have been in conflict for the past year primarily over budget disputes, the control of money from the Law Enforcement Sales Tax fund and operations of the county jail. Those are among the issues cited in a lawsuit Dunn has filed against commissioners, County Auditor Richard Webster, and members of a new board that oversees the allocation of grant funds from the Law Enforcement Sales Tax Fund.
The Globe was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the DARE organization with questions on whether the group had policies regarding political advertising on materials linked to the program.
The one-fourth cent law enforcement sales tax generated revenues of more than $3.2 million in 2011.