Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler has asked a County Councilman Andre Johnson to repay the cost to provide a mobile drug abuse education tool at what the sheriff said was a campaign event and an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
Johnson’s lawyer, James Sweeting, said it’s “all a misunderstanding” and the event was held to benefit the community and the Boys & Girls Club of Edgewood, and Johnson would like to sit down and talk to Gahler about the situation.
Gahler sent a letter, dated Aug. 24, to Johnson, who represents the Edgewood and Joppatowne areas, advising him “It is not legal to divert government resources for political purposes and the fact that the Sheriff’s Office, as well as other County assets, would be provided to this event at no cost, casts a very negative light."
Gahler asks that Johnson repay the $666 to provide the HOPE House for three hours at a Community Health Resource Fair at the Boys and Girls Club in Edgewood on Aug. 10, according to the letter.
The HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort) House is a mobile educational tool used to raise awareness and inform parents of the warning signs of use or abuse of controlled dangerous substances.
“I am notifying you that I expect that taxpayers funds used by the Sheriff’s Office to work the fundraiser be paid back to the citizens of Harford County,” Gahler, a Republican, wrote. “It is not proper that taxpayers bore the expense of your fundraising event.”
County Executive Barry Glassman and other members of the Harford County Council, along with attorneys for both branches of county government, were copied on the letter.
Johnson, a Democrat who was elected in 2016, is disappointed Gahler did not address him directly before sending letters to his colleagues on the county council, Sweeting said.
Johnson sent a letter to Gahler on Tuesday requesting a meeting to discuss the situation. He did not commit to paying back the $666, Sweeting said.
“We’re not saying one way or the other. We’re not opposed to paying it, but we’re not saying it’s necessary either,” Sweeting said. “We believe it’s just a misunderstanding, a mis-characterization of the event.”
Having not heard from Johnson by Monday, a second letter was hand-delivered to Johnson’s council office on Monday stating that Gahler’s position is the same and “that repayment is expected,” according to Cristie Hopkins, director of media relations for the Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office agreed to provide the HOPE House — staffed with two deputies and two volunteers — at the event purported to be a community health fair, not a political fundraiser, according to a memo from a deputy in the community policing unit.
The day of the event, the deputies arrived at the Boys & Girls Club with the trailer and set up with about 25 other display tables from various associations, including Johnson, Del. Steve Johnson, special interest groups, the Democratic Club, the Harford Emergency Operations Center, Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and APG Federal Credit Union, according to the memo.
The DJ who opened the event thanked people for attending the fair and “fundraiser for Councilman Andre Johnson,” according to the memo.
Representatives from the Emergency Operations Center and Upper Chesapeake Health told the deputy they were not aware the event was a fundraiser. An APGFCU representative said initially she didn’t know it was a fundraiser, but realized it was when she received an invoice payable to a political account, according to the deputy’s memo.
The deputy observed several fundraising efforts: food for sale, one-minute announcements that could be made for $10 and dance tickets for $1.
“In reviewing the sponsorship solicitation for the event, it is very apparent that monies collected for the event, were indeed intended for your campaign as checks were payable to your campaign entity, ‘Friends to Elect Andre Johnson,’" Gahler wrote to the councilman.
The solicitation was not from his council office, rather his campaign manager, the sheriff wrote.
“It is my understanding that your contention is that the funds paid to your campaign were only recouping monies spent from your campaign account used to host the event,” Gahler wrote. “This too is not consistent with campaign finance guidelines.”
Even of the money were a reimbursement, the event was “spirited in support of your political campaign, making it a political event,” Gahler wrote.
The community policing unit exists to bring opportunities to the community at no cost or obligation, Gahler wrote.
“We just see this as a huge missed opportunity. We wanted to work with the Sheriff’s Office,” Sweeting said. “It’s not too late to resolve this matter — it would help if cooler heads could prevail."
He said Johnson wants to work with the sheriff’s office, in a partnership, and not have an adversarial relationship.
“We don’t want to poison the well of the partnership, but it takes two sides to do that,” Sweeting said. “If the sheriff is taking offense, or misunderstood what our purpose was; the councilman doesn’t do anything that’s not in furtherance of the best interest of the citizens of Harford County.”
The Sheriff’s Office gets many requests for displays and speakers throughout the year, Hopkins said.
“Many of these organizations contact us year after year, and we have established relationships with them,” she said. “Until this time, we never had reason to require all requests in writing. But, as a result of this incident, we are developing a form that must be signed by the requester that clearly states the purpose of the event and asserts that it is not a political event or fundraiser.”
Gahler also spoke with other county leaders about the fair, since it had resources there.
“Out of respect to our county leaders and so they were not taken by surprise, the Sheriff did share his intention to send Councilman Johnson a letter expressing his concerns,” Hopkins said.
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Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for Harford County government, said the county agrees with Gahler’s findings and “the councilman should reimburse the funds.”
“We were also misled and the county attorney made our concerns known to the council attorney,” Mumby said. “And we expect the council to remedy the situation.”
The county will not seek reimbursement because it did not incur additional costs to be at the event, she said. The Department of Emergency Services attends many community events, providing information to the public. The employees who attended the Aug. 21 fair received comp time, she said.
“We would not knowingly have attended a campaign event,” Mumby said.
The council’s attorney, Charles Kearney, said he would not comment on Gahler’s letter “because I don’t know all the facts.”
Council President Patrick Vincenti did not comment.
“It’s not anything to do with me,” Vincenti said. The council attorney is aware of it “and we’ll see where it goes.”