A press conference called by the Henry County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday raised questions about whether the event itself had violated state law.
Capt. Wayne Davis of the Sheriff’s Office emailed an announcement Tuesday at 10:33 a.m. to representatives of news media saying this:
“Sheriff Lane Perry will be conducting a press conference today, April 9th at 3:00 pm. This will be held at the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, 3250 Kings Mountain Rd., Martinsville, VA.
“All media outlets are invited and encouraged to attend. We look forward to your attendance.”
A short while later, a reporter sent separate emails to Davis and Perry asking what this press conference was about.
Thinking important news about a criminal investigation might be announced — speculation began to circle about potential cases that had not been closed, ranging from a recent death in a house fire to the Jennifer Short murder — about a half-dozen news media representatives went to the sheriff’s office.
A little after 3 p.m., Sheriff Perry stepped to a lectern erected outside the front door of the sheriff’s office, against a backdrop of various flags. Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper, Patrick County Dan Smith, Danville Sheriff Michael Mondul, Pittsylvania County Sheriff Michael Taylor, Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton Jr. and Patrick Henry Community College Police Chief Gary Dove stood shoulder to shoulder behind Perry for what appeared to be a significant announcement about fighting crime.
But Perry proceeded to announce his candidacy for re-election as sheriff and gave a speech about why he is running and what his department has accomplished in the 12-plus years he has served as sheriff. The other sheriffs and police chiefs made remarks endorsing him.
Did that misleading process of urging news media to attend a news conference that in fact was for political purposes violate state election law? Was using the sheriff’s office property, employees, equipment and presumably other state officials on public time to stage a political event outside those laws?
Andrea Gaines, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Elections, wrote in an email that her department does not provide legal advice on issues but that it might be able to provide the a reference to assist in determining the legality of Perry’s actions.
In a subsequent email, after she was supplied more details about the incident, Gaines wrote:
“Matters such as these should be directed to your local Commonwealth Attorney's Office.”
Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Nester was out of town attending training and didn't respond until late Tuesday night. He deflected the tossed question from Gaines and said he can't offer an opinion or investigate these questions until there is either a formal complaint filed or a directive from the state.
"I am not lawfully permitted to give 'advisory opinions' on hypotheticals or other such general inquiries into specific facts as they relate to the law and, thereby, give what is tantamount to private legal advice," Nester said in an email. "Thus, unless a formal complaint is being lodged against the sheriff, I cannot begin to research if any campaign laws have or have not been violated.
"Since the sheriff is an elected official, by law, I am not permitted to engage into any investigation of him or his activities unless the Attorney General of Virginia gives consent to move forward. This typically involves a formal complaint being made to a law enforcement agency (typically the Virginia State Police) of competent jurisdiction and then a request is sought from the Attorney General as to whether or not the case can move forward from there."
But Dan Ortiz, a University of Virginia law professor, said he doesn’t think Perry’s called press conference was illegal, but, he added, “It’s certainly poor practice.
“The public has a great interest in how the police department operates,” and if police lead news media to believe they are going to make a big news announcement, “how many times is this going to happen before you stop showing up?” Ortiz said.
“It’s going to affect your ability to trust them. You’re liable to feel jerked around,” Ortiz said.
Was this abuse of power?
Ortiz said he doesn’t think so.
“It may leave a bad smell…. It doesn’t rise to the level of abuse of power,” Ortiz said. He said politicians often endorse other politicians.
“Police, you like to think of as not as political, like legislators [are], but in Virginia we elect these people.
“It wasn’t a good thing to do.” But, “it was low level.”
An email was sent to Perry after the news conference to ask why Davis’ announcement didn’t state the purpose of the press conference and why there was no response to follow-up queries.
Perry did not respond immediately.
1. I am not lawfully permitted to give “advisory opinions” on hypotheticals or other such general inquiries into specific facts as they relate to the law and, thereby, give what is tantamount to private legal advice. Thus, unless a formal complaint is being lodged against the Sheriff, I cannot begin to research if any campaign laws have or have not been violated. With this in mind, are you/the Bulletin making this into a formal complaint to be investigated or has someone else in the community reached out to you with a complaint for the newspaper to investigate? Also, if a formal complaint is being made by you, could you please be more specific as to what you believe was improper with the referenced scenario?
2. Since the Sheriff is an elected official, by law, I am not permitted to engage into any investigation of him or his activities unless the Attorney General of Virginia gives consent to move forward. This typically involves a formal complaint being made to a law enforcement agency (typically the Virginia State Police) of competent jurisdiction and then a request is sought from the Attorney General as to whether or not the case can move forward from there.