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Fergus County Sheriff Rick Vaughn campaigned for election in November while on duty as the department’s undersheriff, according to a recently released report.

The report says Vaughn acknowledged seeking political support from Lewistown Police Department, Lewistown Public Defender’s Office and Montana Highway Patrol while on duty, although he disputed that during a recent conversation with The Billings Gazette.

Montana law forbids public employees from campaigning while on duty, but enforcing that law falls to the Commissioner of Political Practices, which has received no complaints in the matter.

The information contained in a Sept. 20, 2018, report by an investigator hired through the Montana Association of Counties was recently made public by a judge in Fergus County. 

Vaughn also discouraged sheriff’s office employees from showing support for his opponent and may have violated federal law in his dealings with employees who serve in the military, the report found.

The Gazette obtained the report after filing a public information request and lawsuit. After prevailing in court, District Judge Jon Oldenberg ordered the report released with witness names redacted. 

Before his election in November, Vaughn had served as undersheriff since 2001. He beat a deputy in the office, Bryon Armour, 64% to 34%, or 3,473 votes to 1,978.

The report

Beginning in late 2017, the county began receiving complaints about how Vaughn and then-sheriff Troy Eades were handling the upcoming sheriff’s race, according to the report. Eades had decided not to run for re-election.

In response, the county attorney’s office sent all county employees and elected officials a memo with guidance on acceptable political activity by public employees. 

For instance, they could take paid time off to work on a campaign but could not use county property or time for political purposes.

Complaints continued to roll in even after the countywide guidance, the report noted, and so the Montana Association of Counties was contacted, which helped hire human resources consultant Michelle Edmunds to investigate. Edmunds interviewed more than 30 witnesses and employees for the report.

Sheriff’s office management discussed firing probationary employees who didn’t support Vaughn, according to the report. The report did not specify whether it was Vaughn or Eades who made the suggestion, referring only to management, which the report defined as including only the two men. 

“There are multiple examples of statements by management that expressed a desire to terminate probationary employees based on who they supported in the upcoming election,” the report states.

Vaughn or Eades — again, the report does not specify which — had told employees it was unprofessional to post political yard signs at home or engage in other off-duty support of a political candidate. Both are protected First Amendment activities, the report noted.

Vaughn acknowledged to the investigator it would be difficult to make future personnel decisions without considering an employee’s “lack of support.”

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Finally, Vaughn or Eades expressed displeasure over one employee’s time off required to travel to complete military orders and told another job applicant they weren’t qualified, saying the office already had too many military employees.

Those actions could constitute a violation of federal workplace protections for military employees, the investigator found. 

The report made several recommendations, including disciplining Vaughn for using work time to court political endorsements and requiring countywide training on Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Response

Reached Monday, Vaughn said he’d read the report.

"If I did something wrong, I’d like to take my lumps," he said. 

But he also said he wasn't sure he had done anything wrong and blamed a lack of training for the statements to military employees. 

Regarding the report's finding that he campaigned while on duty, Vaughn said he'd been verbally reprimanded for it by Eades. But he also disputed that he made those calls while on duty, even though the report suggests he earlier acknowledged it. 

“Yeah I asked for support,” he said. “I guess I’m not sure that I would say it was on duty, though.”

Vaughn said he couldn’t remember when exactly he made the endorsement requests or what he told the investigator. The report says he made them while on duty, and that "management acknowledged these events did occur.”

Vaugh said he had his own complaints related to the past year working with the county, and that a separate investigation was underway, being conducted by the Broadwater County Attorney's Office.

"So I guess that I would just say that there’s another side of the investigation and it’s being investigated," he said. "And it has to do with other stuff besides the sheriff’s office inside the county."

Vaughn declined to comment further.

Fergus County Attorney Kent Sipe said his office had arranged for the Broadwater County Attorney’s Office to investigate Vaughn’s newer complaints to avoid a conflict of interest.

Sipe also said the county had followed the report’s recommendation to hold a training for county employees on protections for military employees and for political speech. It did so in December.

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