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Questions surround legality of campaign ad for Knox County sheriff

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - In his campaign ad for Knox County sheriff, KCSO Chief Deputy Lee Tramel stands in front of cruisers and deputies while wearing his uniform and some people are wondering is if this is legal. 

According to Akram Faizer with the Duncan School of Law, it's a bit of a gray area. 

"This ad is not the best practices," said Faizer.  

It is not illegal under the federal Hatch Act because the Hatch Act only applies to federal employees. It is also not in violation of the Little Hatch Act because it only applies to state employees not county. Where the ad does get questionable, according to Faizer, is under the Sheriffs Civil Service Law of 1974. 

"It allows people to run for sheriff's office themselves, even though they are on the public fisk, but it doesn't allow them to coerce or have other sheriff's office employees campaign for their election," said Faizer. 

In the ad it appears KCSO deputies are behind him. 

"The entire purpose of using them is to give Lee Tramel the advantages of incumbents by signaling to the public that the workforce in the department is in support of his election, and in that sense, I think the fact that he is using employees, you could argue, is having the workforce make a public endorsement," said Faizer. 

Tramel's campaign manager disagrees. He says the deputies' badges are not visible and the wording on the cruisers is not seen. 

"I think illegal is a strong word," said Faizer. "I think the best practice would be for someone to contact him and say, 'Hey, don't use sheriff's deputies in your ads because that's outside the bounds of what the law allows.'"

Tramel issued the following statement: "I know some of my opponents' supporters are anxious to talk about my clothing. I'd wear a T-shirt and shorts if it would encourage a conversation about the real issues facing our community, like the opioid epidemic."

Tom Spangler is another Knox County sheriff candidate. He retired from the sheriff's office and says avoiding a conflict was one of the reasons he stepped down from another job with the Blount County Sheriff's Office.

He argues that the Hatch Act could apply to any department which receives some federal dollars.

"It is nearly impossible to run a campaign while employed by any sheriff's office without running afoul of the Hatch Act," said Spangler. 

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