A consultant's study of the Fairfax County Jail became a political issue last night as the major contenders for the office of sheriff argued over whether the report vindicated Republican Sheriff James D. Swinson, the jail's controversial keeper.

A smiling Swinson and his handpicked successor, GOP nominee M. Wayne Huggins, said the consultant's report to the County Board of Supervisors supported the sheriff's management of the jail during his 16 years in office.

Huggins, who is chief deputy sheriff, called Swinson "the best sheriff in the state of Virginia" and praised the report. He also said, "politically, it [the report] is not going to hurt me."

"I think a lot of people thought this report would drive a stake through the heart of the sheriff" said Huggins."As it turns out a lot of them are going to have to eat crow."

Huggins' chief election opponent, Democrat Kenneth Wilson, noted that the report outlines specific management problems with security and record keeping at the jail. Wilson also said the report did not exonerate the sheriff's office from charges of improprieties at the jail.

"A consultant's study is not an investigative report," said Wilson.

Swinson has been under fire in recent years from critics who have accused him of general mismanagement at the jail and negligence in the death last year of Donald Ferguson, a prisoner who developed delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal) but went untreated for two days.

Swinson's chief jailer pleaded guilty last year to illegally using a prisoner to build a shed at the sheriff's home and was fined $25.

While citing a number of what it calls "relatively nonserious shortcomings" the study conducted by HMB Associates of Falls Church said the jail "is generally a well managed and operated facility."

The study went on to echo Swinson's repeated contention that the jails most serious problem is over-crowding.

County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. who cleared Swinson and his staff of criminal wrong-doing in the Ferguson case, generally praised the report but questioned its finding that the jail's medical facilities were adequate.

"The Ferguson case indicated shortcomings both in the area of the control and the dispensing of drugs and the medical care of prisoners, which I do not feel have been adequately addressed and evaluated by the study," said Horan in a written statement.