COVINGTON — Claims that Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown violated state campaign laws are under investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.
Photos of a large van with a video board display and audio of a campaign message for Brown began circulating online last week after the van drove by the long lines of voters waiting outside the Newton County Administration Building. The sheriff was also seen speaking with voters waiting in line and exiting the Administration Building. Georgia campaign laws prohibit campaigning — including the display of campaign signs — within 150 feet of a polling place.
According to a case file report from the Secretary of State, complaints of illegal campaigning were filed against the sheriff on Oct. 14 by Scott Jay and Mary Lewellen. The office declined any further comment.
Brown, a Democrat, is seeking his fourth term in office in the Nov. 3 General Election. He faces opposition from Republican Ken Malcom.
Brown said Tuesday that the use of the van and video board were donated to his campaign, and he was not aware of the route the driver intended to take. He said the driver told him he was following other trucks with campaign signs when he drove down Pace and Elm streets.
Brown said once he heard there were objections to his truck driving past the poll, he instructed the driver to take a different route and told deputies assigned to the poll to stop other trucks with campaign signs and encourage the drivers not to drive past the poll.
“We asked those who would comply to not come through there,” said Brown. “However, there are other trucks that are still coming through.”
Coroner Tommy Davis said he was flagged down Tuesday by a deputy as he drove down Elm Street past the poll with a campaign sign displayed.
“I was not intentionally doing anything,” he said. “I was just going to get a cup of coffee.”
Davis said he discussed the deputy’s instructions with Brown and they agreed that they would not drive past the poll with campaign signs displayed.
Davis said he was later contacted by a representative from the Secretary of State’s Office to discuss the complaint. “I asked him if I had done anything wrong, and he said, ’No, sir, you haven’t done anything wrong,’” said Davis.
Brown also denied allegations that he was campaigning in person at the poll. He pointed to Georgia law that states that one of a sheriff’s responsibilities is “to attend at the place or places of holding an election at the county site, on the day of an election, from the opening to the closing of the polls.”
“I have gotten so many calls about the conditions of everything over there (at the poll), so I decided to go over to do an assessment for myself to see what we can do to make things better for the Board of Elections,” Brown said. “That’s the duty of the sheriff … to attend the places of polling on the day of any election.”
Brown said he was concerned about the weather, the lack of shelter for voters, the apparent lack of preparation for the number of voters who turned out, and the way the line was formulated.
He said he spoke with some of those waiting in line, but he did not solicit any votes. He said he brought a deputy with him to act as a witness that he was not campaigning.
The sheriff’s explanation may be in conflict with state campaign laws which state, in part, “No person whose name appears as a candidate on the ballot being voted upon at a primary, election, special primary, or special election, except a judge of the probate court serving as the election superintendent, shall physically enter any polling place other than the polling place at which that person is authorized to cast his or her ballot ... “
Jay, who is one of the citizens who filed a complaint against the sheriff, said he didn’t witness the alleged violations, but he got the information from “an extremely reliable source.”
“As chairman of the Republican Party of Newton County, I felt it was my duty to report the violation,” said Jay.
Jay said he saw photos and video of the sheriff’s campaign vehicle and was told that the sheriff was asked to leave the poll by Elections Supervisor Angela Mantle.
Mantle did not respond to an email request from the Citizen for comment.
Jay said Brown should have taken care to ensure that his truck did not get too near the polling place, and he should not have approached voters at the poll for any reason.
“I would think that any citizen who saw this stuff happen should do the right thing and let the proper authorities know what they saw or what was reported to them,” said Jay. “If he’s truly done nothing wrong, then no harm, no foul, but these are things that go on when you decide to run for public office.”