In a complaint filed with the Secretary of State's office Monday, a Newton County resident accused sheriff's candidate Stacey Cotton of improperly using the Newton County Sheriff's Office badge on a campaign flyer - a flyer that brought admonishment from the current sheriff but no formal penalties.
In an online complaint form, Oxford resident Randy Upton described receiving a mailed flyer on July 15 from Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton's campaign with an NCSO badge on it that he said was in violation of state ordinances prohibiting the use of a sheriff's office name or identifying markers without permission from the sheriff.
"I was really shocked when I saw that badge on there," said Upton, a former Georgia Bureau of Investigations agent.
Cotton said he hadn't been officially notified about the complaint but the badge on the flyer was his own, from being deputized by former Sheriff Gerald Malcolm as part of the S.W.A.T. team and later by Sheriff Joe Nichols.
"I haven't seen the allegations so I don't want to comment on that," Cotton said. "It's my badge and I don't believe I've done anything illegal with it."
Several sections of Georgia's code address the use of the Sheriff's Office name, including O.C.G.A. 15-16-51 which states "no person or organization should be allowed to use any sheriff office's name or any term used to identify the sheriff's office or its members without the express permission of the sheriff."
Sheriff Joe Nichols said he hadn't heard about the complaint but confirmed that no permission had been sought or granted to any of the candidates to use the NCSO badge.
"After I saw the flyer, I talked to all the three remaining candidates," Nichols said. "I told them I did not want to see any direct reference to the badge or the sheriff's office and am satisfied that it won't be repeated."
Cotton and NCSO Lt. Bill Watterson face off in an August 5 runoff for the Republican nomination for Sheriff. NCSO Lt. Ezell Brown won the Democratic nomination on July 15.
Nichols said criminal penalties were involved only if a person continued to use the NCSO name or identifying markers.
"I'm satisfied all three candidates are men of integrity and that it was done by mistake," Nichols said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's the end of it."
Cotton said that the bottom line should be about the most experienced candidate. "This race should be about the quality of the candidates, not the technicalities," he said. "I don't believe I've done anything wrong."
Secretary of State's Office Media Relations Director Matthew Carrothers said the Secretary of State's Office examines every complaint they receive and would notify a candidate 30 days in advance if the Inspector General decided to launch an investigation.
All registered voters are eligible to vote in the Aug. 5 runoffs, but if voters participated in a July 15 primary, they are restricted to voting in that party's runoffs.
Brown will face the winner of the Republican sheriff's runoff in the November 15 general election.