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Sheriff who flew Trump flag on patrol boat violated ban on partisan political activity, officials say

Supporters of President Donald Trump bring their boats and wave runners out to Sandusky Bay for a boat parade in support of the president Sept. 5 in Sandusky, Ohio. (Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)

A sheriff in Upstate New York violated a federal law barring civil servants from partisan political activity by flying a “Making America Great Again” flag from an on-duty patrol boat during a pro-Trump flotilla last summer, investigators said.

At a campaign boat rally on Oneida Lake in August, Oswego County Sheriff Donald Hilton was photographed by the Post-Standard aboard a sheriff’s office boat providing security, with the banner depicting President Donald Trump’s face superimposed over an American flag. Hilton, a Republican, acknowledged that an attendee gave deputies the flag and he approved its exhibition, drawing criticism from residents and other officials, as well as an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

In a letter sent to the sheriff on Thursday, the federal agency said it determined that Hilton had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees — or officials in charge of federally funded departments — from using their official position to influence partisan elections. The anti-corruption law was applied unevenly in the Trump administration, and some of Trump’s closest advisers egregiously violated it to promote his campaign, according to government watchdog groups.

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The federal officials said no disciplinary action will be taken but warned Hilton against future prohibited political activity.

“Because you used an official agency resource to promote a presidential candidate, thus giving the impression that the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office endorsed that candidate, OSC determined that you violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using your official authority to affect an election,” the special counsel’s office wrote.

The county legislature will also not punish Hilton for the incident, according to the county’s top legislator, Chairman Jim Weatherup. Weatherup provided the letter to The Washington Post.

In a joint statement, Weatherup said he spoke with Hilton about flouting the Hatch Act, and Hilton said he “reassured” him and other county leaders that “it will not occur again.”

Hilton, who is in his first term, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nearly two weeks after the boat parade, Hilton wrote in another statement that he took “full and sole responsibility” for the decision to fly the Trump flag, vowing not to repeat it. However, Hilton’s comments were also political. He praised the former president’s support of law enforcement, arguing that people who disagreed with his choice to fly Trump’s campaign flag “also defend rioters who destroy taxpayers’ property.”

Hilton opined the contentious incident “inspired” him “to be even more vocal about the unjust and hypercritical criticism of police by anti-democracy groups and certain politicians who pander to them.” But he promised to pursue those beliefs on his own time.

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