Feds take issue with Ken Deal’s run for office; administration of airport focus of inquiry

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Seven months after Ken Deal lost a bid for county commissioner, he has been notified that his candidacy was in violation of the Hatch Act.
Deal, who has worked for the county for 22 years, is director of administration for Rowan County.
The Hatch Act restricts political activity by individuals employed by state, county or municipal governments that are tied to federal funds.
Deal said recently he didn’t have any idea he was doing something wrong and questioned the motive of whoever filed the complaint with federal authorities and the political intrigue that followed.
Deal, 56, of China Grove, ran as a Republican candidate in the May 6 primary and planned to retire Dec. 1. At the time, he checked with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government, which found no problem with his candidacy. The opinion didn’t deal with federal issues.
In a letter dated Dec. 8, Terilyn Dentino, an attorney with the Hatch Act Unit of the Office of Special Counsel, wrote that because Deal oversees the Rowan County Airport and that the airport receives substantial federal funds, his 2008 candidacy was in violation.
The attorney concluded they found no evidence that Deal willfully violated the Hatch Act and that no disciplinary action will be taken.
In the letter to Deal, Dentino advised that if he opts to run again while in the county job, he could face removal from employment.
Deal said he probably will run again for county commissioner in 2010, and he will retire before filing.
“I’m sorry if I did something wrong,” he said. “I would not have filed if I knew it violated the law.”
Deal said his understanding was that the Hatch Act would come into play only if a portion of his salary was federal dollars or if he had direct control over federal dollars. “I knew all my money was county dollars. … I don’t sign any checks.”
Although supervising the airport was part of his job as director of administration, he doesn’t approve spending. Deal noted all of the federal dollars coming to the airport are approved through the N.C. Department of Transportation and the county commissioners.
Deal was contacted in April by the Office of Special Counsel and discussed his candidacy and his role in the airport operation.
Months went by and he heard nothing.
“I lost the primary. I thought it was a dead issue,” Deal said.
The letter did not identify who filed the inquiry.
The U.S. Office for Special Counsel did not respond to inquiries from the Post.
Former County Commissioner Jim Sides said he did not contact the feds, although he suggested it likely came from within the Republican ranks.
Sides was one of three commissioners displeased with Deal’s decision to run while still employed by the county. Former Chairman Arnold Chamberlain and current Commissioner Tina Hall privately voiced their disapproval.
And there was some discussion to force Deal to retire Dec. 1, but no action was taken.
At least one commissioner, Chad Mitchell, was poised to apply for Deal’s job if he had retired. A teacher and athletic director at East Rowan High School, Mitchell lobbied other commissioners for their support.
Deal opted not to retire after talking with County Manager Gary Page, who encouraged him to stay on a year or more.
Mitchell said recently he continues to be interested in the job and may apply when Deal retires.
Sides said the board was in the process of developing a policy to prohibit county employees from running for commissioner. He cited support from Chamberlain, Hall and possibly Mitchell. Sides said the question remains an unsettled issue for the future.