Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson and Castle Rock Police Chief Bob Heuer violated state election law in a television commercial opposing a state initiative privatizing liquor sales last year, according to state documents and the men themselves.
Both men said Friday that they didn't knowingly violate the law and weren't aware they'd done anything wrong until contacted by state officials after a complaint was filed in October.
"I goofed, and I'm sincerely sorry for that," Nelson said Friday. "I was doing this for what I thought were the right reasons, but the fact is that in doing it I violated campaign rules and I'll take whatever I've got coming. When you do something wrong or outside of the law you've got to man up and say ‘I did wrong.'"
Both could be fined up to $4,200, though any fines likely will be just a fraction of that. Nelson's proposed fine, for example, is $250.
The violation isn't that the two appeared in the political commercial; it's that they wore official dress and used their patrol cars in the shots. Nelson was in a sheriff's office jacket. Heuer wore his city police uniform.
State law forbids elected officials or public employees from using tax payer-purchased items in a political ad — including uniforms and vehicles, according to state Public Disclosure Commission investigators.
Several other Washington law enforcement and firefighter personnel appeared in similar commercials, but they wore personal clothing or prop wardrobe and stood in front of rented vehicles, said PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson.
I-1183, which allows hard alcohol to be sold in grocery stores, passed with 59 percent of the statewide vote in November. In Cowlitz County, the measure only got 48 percent approval.
The complaints against Nelson and Heuer were filed by former cop Phil Barberg of Everett, Wash., who saw the commercials on Seattle TV stations. Barberg supported the initiative, which Nelson and Heuer opposed. Barberg, however, said his complaint was about following the rules, not Nelson's and Heuer's opposition to the measure.
"To make it appear that you represent your entire agency in a political ad, that's a no-no," he said.
Nelson will go before the Public Disclosure Commission Thursday. A stipulated agreement drafted by PDC staff suggests a $250 fine with another $500 dismissed as long as there are no further violations. The commission does not have to accept the agreement, but Nelson said he'll pay the fine if commissioners do.
Nelson said he didn't believe the jacket, which he received several years before he was sheriff, counted as a uniform. He hadn't planned on using the patrol car in the shot, and did so only after the commercial director suggested it. He also signed off of duty during the commercial to create a barrier between work and the commercial.
Still, Nelson said he realizes the explanations don't matter and he should have communicated his concerns about I-1183 within state rules. He said he's apologized to his officers and also apologizes to all county residents for any embarrassment the violation may cause.
Heuer's case is still is pending and does not yet include formal charges, according to state officials. Friday, though, Heuer said he now realizes he violated the law.
City policy required Heuer to seek permission from the mayor to be in a political advertisement. After getting that okay, Heuer said he thought he'd done all he needed to do.
"It was my belief that I wasn't doing anything incorrect," he said. "Now, it's obvious there's a statute that prohibits it and there's not a whole lot I can say. The commercial showed what it showed."