Councilman cleared of wrongdoing in federal probe

CHESTER -- A special federal investigation has cleared Chester County Councilman Tommy Martin of allegations that he violated federal law by running for public office while holding a job with the state Department of Transportation.

"I feel real good," Martin said Tuesday, a day after the Chester County Council meeting where he announced his name had been cleared. "A lot of serious accusations, I think, were made. ... I'm glad it's over with."

In January, Martin learned he had been accused of violating the Hatch Act, a federal mandate that restricts political activity of people employed by state, county or city offices offering programs financed with federal grants or loans.

"They thought I dealt with federal money and loans," Martin said, referring to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act violations. "I handle no money or nothing like that."

A maintenance foreman with the S.C. Department of Transportation, Martin's job is to keep Fairfield County highways clear. He's worked for the department since 2001.

The investigation focused on the positions Martin held when he ran for a school board seat in 2002 and a County Council slot in 2004, according to a May 2 letter to Martin from the Office of Special Counsel.

"(Investigators) do not believe that you have duties in connection with a program funded by a federal grant or loan, and thus, you were not covered by the Hatch Act during your 2002 and 2004 candidacies," the letter states. "Consequently, we are closing our file in this matter."

Although Martin has been cleared in his previous two races, the letter states that his job description has changed since 2004, and any change in his employment could change his Hatch Act status.

The document concludes by recommending that Martin ask the office for an opinion on his current job before seeking office again. Martin said he will run for office next year but probably won't file the advisory document because the Office of Special Counsel already has his job description.

Martin is just the latest Chester County leader to grapple with Hatch Act issues.

Maggie James, a former Chester County school board member who served 13 years, did not seek re-election in the fall because of the Hatch Act.

An employee of the Chester County Department of Health and Human Services, James was restricted from political activity because her office received money for programs financed by federal grants and/or loans.

Former Chester County Manager Avery Frick faced a similar situation in March. Frick announced he would not file for the county supervisor's position because he was prohibited to campaign by the Office of Special Counsel unless he resigned as county manager. The OSC considered Frick a federal employee under the Hatch Act, he said.

County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said Martin's name being cleared is good news for county leaders.

"It's a good thing for him and it's a good thing for us," Roddey said. "Because we know that he's going to be there."

The Hatch Act is a federal mandate that restricts the political activity of people employed by state, county or city offices offering programs financed with federal grants and loans.