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Gamble pleads innocent to campaign charges

LISBON — County prosecutor candidate John Gamble pleaded innocent Friday in county Municipal Court to violating state election law for posting a photograph on his campaign Facebook page of himself and police officers supporting him.

Gamble, who is chief assistant county prosecutor, was charged earlier this month by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office with four counts of complicity – two charges for two different officers from the East Liverpool Police Department who appeared in the photograph. Gamble is seeking to run in the Nov. 3 election to replace his longtime boss, Robert Herron, who is retiring.

He is accused of soliciting a classified public employee to participate in politics in a way that violated the law. The charges are misdemeanors and carry a maximum possible sentence of six months in the county jail on each count and $500 fine.

Municipal Court Judge Tim McNicol accepted Gamble’s plea and scheduled a preliminary hearing for 8:30 a.m. Sept. 2. McNicol and fellow judge Katelyn Dickey, who both served as assistant prosecutors with Gamble, have recused themselves from the case. The case will now be handled by retired Stark Common Pleas Court Judge David Stucki, who was appointed.

The attorney general’s office says it only took action after Gamble refused to take down the post.

“We sent a cease-and-desist letter

explaining the law to Mr. Gamble, offering him an opportunity to comply without charges. His continued non-compliance left no choice but to seek enforcement of the law requiring civil service employees to be apolitical — nowhere more important than in law enforcement,” said Steve Irwin, senior public information officer for the attorney general’s office.

Gamble and others forwarded information to the newspaper showing photographs of law enforcement officers with Attorney General David Yost on Yost’s official website and his campaign website and on the campaign website of Gov. Mike DeWine when he was state attorney general.

There are photographs of numerous local police officers with Gamble but he is only charged in regard to the four East Liverpool officers, who are classified employees, and that is the distinction under the law.

Generally, a classified public employee is someone who has passed a civil service exam and enjoys civil service protection under the law. Unclassified public employees are at-will employees who can be removed at any time by the appointing authority and have no civil service protection.

Gamble was charged with violating Ohio’s Little Hatch Act, a synopsis of which was provided by the attorney general’s office upon request by the newspaper. The synopsis stated law enforcement officers are frequently featured in political advertisements but not all law enforcement officers are classified employees. For example, all county sheriffs, some police chiefs and many township officers are unclassified employees, and they are free to participate in political activities.

The law says classified employees cannot “take part in politics other than to vote as the officer or employee pleases and to express freely political opinions.”

There are exceptions, apparently, and “intent is the key. For example, if law enforcement officer appears in the course of official duties working alongside or with a partisan political candidate — even if a photograph or video is made — (he or she) only violates the law if an endorsement is made.”

The post on Gamble’s Facebook page reads, “Over 500 years of law enforcement experience standing with John Gamble. They have his back in the election because he’s had their backs for the last 30 years.”

The newspaper pointed out in prior stories that Gamble’s opponent for county prosecutor, Vito Abruzzino, has a photograph on his campaign Facebook page of him with Perry Township police officers, but they are unclassified public employees. This prompted Abruzzino to send out a news release.

“In no way should my completely legal actions pertaining to my political ads be somehow equated with what my opponent has done. He has not only violated established law enforcement classified service law governing classified service law enforcement officers, but has flaunted and disregarded the warnings given him by the Attorney General of Ohio. We should expect better of our candidates in such situations,” he said.

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