Monday, January 14, 2013

Oconee County Sheriff’s Plans To Boycott Company For Arms Sale Policy Has Obstacles

Legality An Open Question

If Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry plans to follow through on his promise to boycott Dana Safety Supply because the company has decided not to sell some firearms to the general public, he will have to change the procedures he follows for purchasing weapons.

At present, the sheriff goes through the regular purchasing procedures of the county, where state contracts control many purchases and were low bidders are selected if they can provide the product.

In addition, according to County Attorney Daniel Haygood, it is unclear whether Berry could do legally what he is threatening to do.

Berry would be requiring a private company to sell a product to a third party–in this case, the public–in order to do business with the government.

“That’s a real good question,” Haygood told me when I asked him last week if such a condition were legally defensible. Haygood said I was not the first to ask him that question. “I don’t know the answer to it,” Haygood said.

Haygood said that the sheriff, as the holder of an elective office specified in the state’s constitution, does have authority to act independently of the Board of Commissioners, which has broad authority for the financial affairs of the county.

The law requires the BOC to provide funds to the sheriff, Haygood said, but the BOC cannot control what the sheriff does with those funds. And the sheriff, Haygood said, isn’t required to seek bids on purchases he makes.

Sheriff's Purchase Of Vehicles Informative

Berry, however, has agreed voluntarily to make his purchases, including of his weapons, patrol vehicles and operating supplies, through the county’s purchasing office and to follow county purchasing and bidding procedures.

Berry followed just those procedures on Nov. 27, 2012, when he came before the Board of Commissioners seeking authorization to buy new patrol vehicles.

Haygood said Berry is “very responsible about complying” with the county’s purchasing procedures.

Procedures Focus On Cost

If the final purchase price for any product the sheriff is seeking goes over $750, County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko said, the Sheriff has agreed to make the purchase through the county. Most weapon purchase would be over that amount, Benko said.

When the sheriff says he needs weapons and other equipment, Benko said, the county first checks to see if the item is on a state contract. The second option is to advertise for bids.

“We try to take the lowest bid in all cases,” Benko said. “That helps Scott out and it helps us out. It saves county dollars, and that’s the goal.”

“I have to take personal opinions out of it,” he added.

Sheriff Used Funds for 10th Car

At that Nov. 27 meeting, the commissioners agreed to provide the Sheriff $230,000 for purchase of nine vehicles, and the Sheriff agreed to use some of his existing budget and funds from his seized assets account to buy a 10th.

Benko said the Sheriff does exercise considerable latitude in spending from the seized assets account, but the account rarely has more than $30,000 in it, and Berry agreed to spend about that amount this year on the 10th vehicle.

Berry comes before the BOC once a year to indicate how he has spent the money in the seized asset account, Benko said. And that account also is audited when the rest of the county’s spending is audited each year.

Berry Sent Email To Dana Safety Supply

At the beginning of the year, Berry sent an email message to Dana Safety Supply, which has a store in Buford, saying that “It is my understanding that you have stopped selling self loading rifles to members of the general public in favor of selling them to law enforcement officers only.”

“I deeply regret that decision,” the email message continues. “As such, this agency will no longer seek bids from or purchase from DSS.”

Berry told me in an email message on Jan. 7 that he had not heard back from Dana.

According to Berry, writing in his weekly column in The Oconee Enterprise on Jan. 10, a “friend” who writes “an online newspaper column” asked Berry for permission to use the email in the column.

“(I)n a matter of days my stance on the issue had gone nationwide, both online and over the airwave on various TV outlets,” Berry wrote.

Included was a nearly six-minutes long interview with cable news channel Fox Business, a story with Fox5 television in Atlanta,a story on Atlanta CBS affiliate WGLC-TV, a front-page story in the Jan. 5 issue of the Athens Banner-Herald, and a front-page story in the Jan. 10 issue of The Oconee Enterprise.

None of those stories reported how Berry goes about purchasing weapons.

Dana Supply: “Business Decision”

Nor did they give much more than fleeting reference to the Dana policy, which is stated clearly on the company’s web site.

The site states that Dana Safety Supply sells law enforcement equipment from seven locations throughout the Southeast, including from the store in Buford.

Dana Safety Supply’s core business is to equip and support law enforcement agencies, the site states.

“While we support the rights of Americans to own and safely use firearms,” the site states, “we have chosen to sell some select firearms to law enforcement personnel only.”

The site refers to this as a “business decision to focus our efforts on our core business of supplying and supporting law enforcement personnel.”

Newtown Massacre Stirred Sheriff

Sheriff Berry became a particularly vocal critic of gun control immediately following the Dec. 14, fatal shooting of 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in the town of Newtown, Conn.

The shooter used a Bushmaster XM riffle.

In the Dec. 20 issue of the Enterprise, in a column titled “Rest assured, kids are safe in Oconee County Schools,” Berry said “It is easy to blame guns or the type of guns allegedly used in this shooting.”

“The truth is that in Oconee County, our children are safer inside the schools than they are driving to school every morning,” the column continued.

Blake Giles, editor of the paper, told me that the paper’s staff, not the sheriff, wrote the headline for the article, as is paper policy.

In his column in the Jan. 3 issue of the Enterprise, Berry wrote that, “In my opinion, the government has no business telling me what kind of firearm I can buy any more than they can tell me what kind of car to buy, or what food to buy, or where to live, work or play.”

“The 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with target shooting, hunting, collecting or anything of the sort,” he wrote. “It was drafted to guarantee that Americans could defend themselves not only from criminals but from an oppressive government. I stand behind it 100 percent.”

Prominent Picture Last Week

The front page story in last week’s Enterprise was accompanied by a prominent picture of the sheriff with his arm around a local elementary school student, whose letter praising the sheriff appeared on page A5 of the paper. Berry’s column was on page A3.

That story said Berry was flabbergasted by the media attention he has received, though that was the reporter’s word, not Berry’s. “If the media calls, I’ll answer,” the paper quoted Berry as saying. “I don’t hide from the media.”

Berry’s Facebook page is full of links and references to the stories about his comments on Dana Safety Supply and to places where the Fox Business story, in particular, have been embedded and referenced.

Haygood’s History Lesson

When I talked to County Attorney Haygood on Jan. 7, he offered a historical perspective on the power of the sheriff in Georgia. The constitution, Haygood said, does allow the sheriff a lot of latitude.

“We have an odd system in Georgia,” he said. “It is the result of being one of the original 13 colonies.”

“I think conceptually the idea was that you wanted all of these elected officers to kind of balance each other out. Nobody would get a concentration of power,” Haygood said. “As the electorate, you don’t really trust any of them.”


Anonymous said...

I feel more secure having a sheriff that believes in the true meaning of the 2nd amendment. When the SHTF, at least the leader of my local law enforcement will be with the people.

C. Davis said...

Thank you so much for this. You've done a wonderful job here - as you always do - asking the more complex questions. God help us if we had to rely on the Enterprise to do that.

I've posed this same question/concern about Sheriff Berry's authority to utilize tax dollars to subsidize his political agenda to the members of the Commission. I've only heard back from one Commissioner and that was really only to tell me that if I had a problem with it, I should contact Sheriff Berry himself. I have no intention of doing that as he has made his position incredibly clear and made sure that he received plenty of attention for it.

I appreciate that the Sheriff (and I suppose the other constitutional county officers) has some discretion in this area, but I do not believe that the county's hands are completely tied here. There have to be ways that the county could call the Sheriff out on this. Their refusal to do so is poor stewardship of our tax dollars, allowing for potential inefficiencies and waste to promote the political agenda and ambitions of the Sheriff.

Again, thanks so much for investigating this issue.

C. Davis

Anonymous said...

Scott Berry consistently draws attention to himself, a shameless glory hound. His ego is unchecked and out of control. His job is to protect the citizens of the court and run the jail. But he uses the office for his own personal gain. Shameful.

P.S. His department does a horrible job with traffic enforcement. Speeding and reckless driving is apparantly not as big of a priority to Berry as is bringing attention to the great and infallable Sheriff King.