Felony conviction will prevent constable from running for re-election
By Karen Sells
The issue came to light after the Herald & Tribune began an investigation into the matter in February. The investigation was sparked by a tip that one of the county’s constables is unable to carry a gun because he is a convicted felon.
His past run-in with the law appears to be nothing Marvin K. “Pete” Ferguson ever tried to hide.
“He told us he was a convicted felon and asked if he was eligible to run for constable when he brought in his papers for the 2010 election,” Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart said following the May 18 meeting of the Washington County Election Commission.
A search for Ferguson’s election application is ongoing. According to Stewart, the commission’s recent move to a new office has caused Ferguson’s paperwork to go missing.
Many people in the community apparently had heard rumors about Ferguson’s criminal past.
“Pete told several people he was (a convicted felon) back in the 1970s,” said Rick Gillenwater, president of the County Constable Association, when contacted in March. “I don’t know anything verbatim, it was second-hand information, and I haven’t talked to him one time since he became a constable.”
Washington County Commissioner Sam Phillips had also heard about it.
“The rumor was around the time Pete was sworn in by Judge Lynn Brown,” he said. “The issue was left in the (district attorney’s) hands.”
For months, it seemed no one was taking responsibility for digging deeper to find out whether Ferguson was, in fact, allowed to serve as a constable.
Mayor Dan Eldridge, when contacted by the Herald & Tribune in February, said he did not have any information on the issue, but that his office would be able to confirm whether the rumor of Ferguson’s criminal past was true.
According to County Attorney John Rambo, the Election Commission verifies candidates’ eligibility to run for office and the district attorney handles removing those not qualified.
Rambo had seen no criminal report on any constable, he wrote in an email dated March 1, but the offices of the mayor and the county attorney do not have this information.
Earlier this month, District Attorney Tony Clark confirmed Ferguson was sworn in as a constable by Brown, but said he can’t request criminal records from the state without an ongoing investigation because a case number is needed to access the database.
“I’m not in control of people who are elected improperly, and there has been no allegation of a criminal act,” Clark said. “No judge, no constituent, and no commissioner has brought this to my attention.”
When asked if questions from the Herald & Tribune qualified as bringing the matter to his attention, Clark said his office currently has 800 open cases in the four counties it serves, including five recent homicides.
“We don’t work closely with the constables office,” he said, but offered to send a letter to the Election Commission and speak with a contact at the state constables association.
Stewart was asked how Ferguson’s candidacy went further once he self-proclaimed the conviction. She said no record could be located at the time, so his name went on the ballot.
However, a copy of a U.S. District Court Judgment and Probation/Commitment Order for Ferguson, provided by Stewart, is stamped as being received by the Election Office on Sept. 20, 2010.
The order confirms Ferguson was convicted Sept. 19, 1977, of the offenses of “on/about May 20, 1975, in the Eastern District of Tennessee, aided and abetted…willfully did disclose…the contents of a wire communication, which had been obtained through interception of a wire communication and on/about Oct. 13, 1976, did disclose…the contents of a wire communication, which said information had been obtained through interception of a wire communication…in violation of 18 U.S.C., section 2511(1)(c) and Section 2.”
Ferguson was sentenced in Federal Court of Greene County, fined $1,000 and placed on probation for a period of two years. His citizenship rights were restored in an order signed by Brown on July 19, 2002. While Ferguson’s rights were restored to vote in all elections and hold public office, the order states, “this does not give the defendant the right to possess a firearm.”
During the May 18 meeting of the Election Commission, Stewart distributed a copy of an email from Beth Henry-Robertson, assistant coordinator of elections for the State of Tennessee.
According to Henry-Robertson, “...pursuant to TCA 8-10-102(a)(1)(D), a person who has been convicted of a felony in federal or state court is ineligible to qualify as a candidate for constable. This prohibition to qualifying for this office applies even if the person has had his or her citizenship rights restored by a court.”
“The law says the court does not have the right to restore the right to run for sheriff or constable,” Stewart said, adding that Ferguson’s attorney is trying to get a presidential pardon.
“It was never his intention to do anything illegal,” she said.
A closer look at constable applications for the August election revealed a second candidate is also ineligible.
Hashel Greene, a former constable who left office and recently filed papers to run again, cannot legally run because he does not possess a high school diploma or GED.
Stewart told commissioners Greene’s previous service as constable was legal, but a change in the law now requires a diploma or equivalent.
When the Herald & Tribune asked who is responsible for verifying information on the applications, Stewart said all Election Office employees are involved.
“(Greene’s) was an oversight,” she said. “We had heard from some other constables that he didn’t have a diploma, but it was his responsibility to mark it on the application.”
The application has a space to indicate the prospective candidate has a minimum of a high school diploma or GED, which Greene did not check.
Stewart told commissioners Ferguson and Greene would have to be removed from the August ballot.
“Isn’t it too late now for anyone else to qualify?” Commissioner Sue Chinouth asked.
Stewart confirmed the slate would have two open spots, but said the county has enough remaining constables to cover the workload.