Sheriff Kenneth Lemaster said on Tuesday that he believes acceptance of the gift would be in violation of ethics rules because the donation was designated for a particular officer — Deputy Tim Sherman, one of the department’s K-9 handlers — and not the department as a whole.
An advisory opinion issued March 1 by the West Virginia Ethics Commission, however, indicates unsolicited gifts can be accepted by government agencies “if acceptance of such gifts inures to the benefit of the public generally or is in furtherance of the operation of the office.”
“The key is that the gift is given to and utilized by the government agency and is not for the personal, private gain of a particular public servant,” according to the opinion. The Commission’s opinion was requested by a municipal police department that asked whether the state Ethics Act permitted the solicitation of donations for the purchase of a police canine and shotgun/rifle racks for police cars.
In the advisory opinion, the Ethics Commission ruled that soliciting gifts by any “public official or public employee” is not allowed unless the solicitation is for a charitable purpose with no benefits being generated for the official or employee or their immediate family members.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Theresa M. Kirk said this week she did not know of any state law that would prohibit such a specific donation for a K-9, but conceded that the Ethics Commission only has the power to interpret the Ethics Act in state law and not other code sections.
Lemaster did not return phone messages Wednesday or Thursday about the Ethics Commission’s advisory opinion.
After being acquired in February, Sherman’s previous K-9, Hurley, died on July 17 due to complications with a cancerous tumor found in his stomach, according to Berkeley County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association President Scott Myers.
An announcement of the 3-year-old dog’s death posted on the deputy sheriffs’ association’s Facebook page apparently prompted the anonymous gift of $3,000 to the nonprofit organization, according to a copy of the unsigned letter Myers released Thursday.
The letter to Myers also stipulated that the donation, which was to be given to the sheriff’s office via the deputy sheriffs’ association, be specifically for the purchase of a replacement K-9 for Sherman.
“When I read (the Facebook post), I immediately had a feeling of loss and mourned for this deputy,” the donor wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to Myers.
“I thought about it overnight and just decided, along with my family, that we wanted to honor K-9 Hurley.”
The social media website post about Hurley’s death, which Myers confirmed Thursday, memorializes the K-9’s training and service record, but does not appear to solicit donations from the public.
“On April 1, 2012, Hurley began his career on the streets of Berkeley County and over his short career he had numerous vehicle and building searches some of which resulted in seizures of illegal narcotics and illegal cash involved with the sale of narcotics,” the Facebook post states.
“Hurley was not only a great partner but a loyal companion and friend.”
Myers said the deputy sheriffs’ association was told that the group would have to pick up the donation at a bank and that members of the organization “have no clue who (the donor) is.”
The addition of the dog would require training, but Myers said the K-9 could be trained in-house by Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Tom Young, who trained Hurley in seven different odors of narcotics.
While Lemaster expressed concern that the dog could actually cost the department more than $10,000, Myers said Sherman’s vehicle also is already equipped for a K-9 and insisted that would effectively eliminate much of the cost for the department, Myers said.
“The only additional cost would be dog food,” Myers said. “It’s a win-win situation for Berkeley County because it’s a free dog.”