When Chuck Milliken decided to run for a seat on Canal Winchester City Council in November, he did something many candidates do: He sought and received an endorsement from the Franklin County Republican Party.
That move, however, turned the nonpartisan council election into a partisan one, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
That, also according to the special counsel's office, violated the Hatch Act, a law governing the political activities of federal employees.
The special counsel's office was alerted to the situation by Randy Stemen, another candidate in the five-person race, who filed a complaint against the Milliken campaign.
Investigators said Milliken, as a U.S. Postal Service carrier, is a federal employee.
However, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said it has "no evidence" that Milliken's actions were "willful."
"Therefore, we are closing our file without further action at this time," Erica S. Hamrick, deputy chief of the special counsel's Hatch Act Unit, wrote in an April 1 email to Stemen.
The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, does not prohibit federal employees from running in nonpartisan elections -- i.e. those in which candidates do not represent a political party.
However, Hamrick wrote that a nonpartisan election "could become partisan if, for instance, one of the candidates was to seek and receive the political party's endorsement; advertise the political party's support in his speeches, flyers or mailings; or receive party support in the form of, for example, campaign publications like flyers, mailers, slate cards, etc."
Milliken's image appeared on campaign mailings with council President Mike Walker and Councilman Bob Clark, who are not federal employees. The trio were "Franklin County Republican Endorsed," according to investigators.
They also concluded that Milliken violated the Hatch Act when he solicited campaign funds for an election that became partisan when he sought and received the Republican Party endorsement.
"I understand now that this is obviously a violation, and I would never do that again," Milliken said. "When I first started my campaign, I had no idea that what I did would be any kind of violation. Initially, I thought a nonpartisan campaign meant that when you go and cast your ballot, there is no R or D next to your name. I didn't realize getting an endorsement would change that."
Before receiving the Republican endorsement, Milliken said, he joined Walker and Clark in an interview with a member of the Franklin County Republican Party Central Committee. He doesn't recall if he was asked about his occupation.
The Franklin County Republican Party did not respond to an email or phone call seeking comment about the endorsement process.
According to the special counsel's office, a federal employee who violates the Hatch Act faces a range of disciplinary actions, including removal from federal service, reduction in grade, debarment from federal service for a period not to exceed five years, suspension, a letter of reprimand or a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000.
Stemen believes Milliken should resign from office. Milliken said he won't do that.
The city charter outlines three reasons for removing elected officials and members of boards and commission from office: multiple consecutive unexcused absences, "failure to possess or maintain qualifications of the office" or "a determination that the accused person is guilty of misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office."
"There's no doubt in my mind that all the advertising and endorsement won him the election," Stemen said. "And I can tell you the advertisement that the Republican Party put out -- the value of that outweighed how much I spent on my entire self-funded campaign."
Incumbents Walker (1,345 votes) and Clark (1,209 votes) and Milliken (1,142 votes) were the top vote-getters in the Nov. 5 election, followed by Stemen (988 votes) and Scott Connor (833 votes).
Connor, an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper, also is prohibited from engaging in partisan politics and soliciting campaign funds, according to state law.
"Mr. Conner publicly disclosed that he could not perform certain activities because of restrictions placed on government employees," Stemen said in an April 2 email to City Council members.
"In all fairness, it is not correct to penalize the candidates that respected this distinction."
Stemen also has asked council to review what happened and "assure that something like this does not happen in the future," possibly by amending the city charter.
"I want to get this out of our politics," he said.