Ex-employee runs against Crook sheriff

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: October 14. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – A string of personal disputes among candidates and an investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice have shaken up the race for Crook County sheriff, a position that has not seen a contested election in more than a decade.

After a 20-year tenure in which he was almost always unopposed for re-election, Crook County Sheriff Rodd Clark beat four challengers in the May primary to appear on the November ballot unopposed. But now, he faces a late-entry write-in challenger next month.

In what both Clark and his opponent, former Sheriff’s Office employee Frank Avey, describe as the product of a backlash of disgruntled employees, the state Attorney General’s Office is currently looking into allegations that Clark violated Oregon election law.

An official with the Attorney General’s Office said Friday he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Avey and the write-in candidate during the primary, Sam Forney, said that during a mandatory Sheriff’s Office staff meeting in August 2005, Clark said he would fire anyone who ran against him for sheriff.

“(Clark) went in and said to us, ‘If you’re thinking of running for the position of sheriff, you better be looking for another job,'” Avey said.

Clark disputed Avey’s account of what went on in the meeting.

“There were a lot of people at that meeting that saw it different than Mrr. Avey (and) that heard it different than Mr. Avey,” he said.

Clark’s lawyer, Greg Lynch, said this week that the issue arose over a sheriff candidate in the primary who solicited the support of Crook County sheriff’s deputies. Lynch said that at the meeting, Clark pointed out that sheriff’s deputies could not campaign for themselves or other people, citing a federal case in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a sheriff to fire a deputy who did so.

“The point was made to demonstrate to those who were in attendance at the meeting how significant the federal court considered dissension in a law enforcement agency is and how important it is to avoid it,” Lynch said.

Lynch said Clark did not threaten to fire anyone or imply he would do so, and in fact offered to help those interested in someday running for sheriff gain more administrative experience. He added that he is sure Clark will be cleared.

Both Avey and Lynch said a state investigator has begun conducting interviews in Prineville.

Since he was elected in 1986, Clark faced only one contested election. That was more than a decade ago.

Clark said the fact that in this election cycle alone he has had five challengers is not due to any misdeeds by the Sheriff’s Office or community opposition to him. He added that he thinks his office has a great deal of credibility in the county.

“An awful lot of the people that have come out and run are ex-employees who have an ax to grind,” he said. “I don’t think they really have the best interest of the community at heart when they do that for personal reasons.”

Avey agreed with the characterization that he is a “disgruntled employee.”

“Why are there (so many) disgruntled employees?” he said. “I am disgruntled, I think all the citizens of Crook County ought to be disgruntled.”

Frank Avey

The handmade signs supporting Frank Avey’s write-in campaign have a common theme: the image of a pencil.

Avey is even passing out yellow No. 2’s emblazoned with “Write-in Frank Avey Crook County Sheriff” to remind voters that his name will not appear on the ballot, but they can manually enter his name to elect him sheriff.

Avey’s signs also feature slogans such as “Elect a Lawman, Not a Politician” and a Halloween-themed “Don’t Get Tricked.”

In late August, Avey declared his intention to run as a write-in candidate against Rodd Clark, who has served as sheriff in Crook County for 20 years. Avey said that, although he wrote a letter of support for Clark before the primary election in May, he decided to run against him because of the state’s ongoing investigation into allegations that Clark exerted undue influence over the election.

“I observed what I would consider unethical actions by Sheriff Clark during his campaign,” Avey said. “I thought about it and I decided, no, it’s not right for the chief law enforcement official to not be telling the truth.”

Avey worked in the Crook County Sheriff’s Office off and on from 1984 to 2006. He was undersheriff from 1986 to 1988, left the office in 1989, returned in 1994 and retired in 2002. After retiring, he worked for the office as a computer consultant, returning full time from June 2005 until this June.

Even though his main reason for running has to do with the ongoing investigation, Avey said he thinks people in Crook County want a new sheriff.

“Twenty years is much too long for any person to hold an office, I think it stagnates and I think it becomes a kingdom mentality,” Avey said.

He added that he thinks he would be better than Clark at accomplishing certain practical goals. Avey wants to focus on new crimes such as identity theft and Internet predators. School safety is also one of his main concerns.

“I consider myself, in comparison to Rodd Clark, more of a law enforcement person in the sense of actually dealing with the issues of crime by working side by side with my deputies,” he said. “Sheriff Clark is more of the politician sheriff and spends most of his time in meetings.”

But Avey acknowledged that running as a write-in candidate is an uphill battle.

“My challenge is to get my name out there and help people understand the write-in process,” he said. “I think if my name … were on the ballot it would be a slam-dunk and if I win then it’s history-making.”

Rodd Clark

Rodd Clark’s number one reason for wanting a sixth term as sheriff is a simple one: “I love my job.”

Clark said he believes he has the support of the community in continuing to serve as sheriff while the county experiences rapid population growth.

“There’s still a lot to be accomplished,” he said. “It’s a growing community and we’re working hard to meet those needs and I believe the community wants me to still be here and to help build the Sheriff’s Office as the county is growing.”

Clark has been sheriff since 1986. Before moving to Crook County he worked in the Nevada County Sheriff’s Department in Truckee, Calif., and in the Los Angeles Police Department. He also served in the U.S. Army.

Clark said he thinks his 30 years of law enforcement experience makes him the most qualified person for the job.

“I’ve got far more experience than my opponent, I’ve got far more involvement in the Sheriff’s Office and in the community,” he said.

The fact that he is now facing opposition for the first time in more than a decade is due to dissatisfaction among a handful of former employees, he said, not to a widespread desire for a new sheriff.

“This Sheriff’s Office has a high degree of credibility with this community and it’s because of the people that work in this office,” he said. “I wouldn’t be successful without the people that work for me.”

The major issue facing the department right now is the “phenomenal growth that we’re experiencing,” Clark said. Several issues that go along with that growth, such as the need for a new jail in Crook County, are also high on his list of priorities. Currently, Crook County rents beds in the Jefferson County Jail and houses prisoners there.

“The challenge for the office is how to keep up with the growth and develop a road map to deal with that adequately,” he said.

Some of his major accomplishments as sheriff have been securing money for the department outside of the county’s general fund and developing a comprehensive emergency response system.

In his campaign, Clark said he has been doing “all the typical things:” putting up signs, canvassing door-to-door and running newspaper, TV and radio ads.

Because he won the primary election in May by more than 51 percent, Clark’s name is the only one that will appear on the ballot for the general election.

Clark said he hopes to continue developing a strong relationship with the people of Crook County if re-elected.

“We view ourselves as problems solvers, not merely responders to crime,” Clark said. “Our motto is ‘people serving people,’ I mean that’s who we are, we’re just citizens serving other citizens.”

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