Emailing workers for election campaign help and posting political — and personal — messages and photos on Facebook during work hours are a well-established practice under Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Tracy Winkler.
On Monday, CityBeat reported how Winkler and her chief deputy bailiff, Donald Robinson, sent emails to employees during office hours, asking them to plant yard signs, wear T-shirts and attend a parade in support of Winkler’s re-election campaign. The emails were sent from and to personal email accounts, but went out early in the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 1, ahead of Labor Day weekend. One employee who reached out to CityBeat felt “bullied” and feared the consequences of not helping.
Winkler, who has not returned phone calls from CityBeat all week, issued a response to the Cincinnati Enquirer on Wednesday. In it, she affixed blame on an unnamed employee.
“I became aware of an email sent by an employee using his personal email account,” she was quoted as saying. “I was disappointed in his comments, as we have run a positive campaign with many great volunteers. I met with the employee and expressed my strong displeasure and told him that this type of comment will never be tolerated by me or anyone in my office. I’ve taken corrective action and I’m confident this will never happen again. I consider the matter closed.”
But is it? Eleven additional emails given to CityBeat by a former employee show that Robinson and two other supervisors were asking workers for help, mostly with signs, as far back as 2012, ahead of Winkler’s first election.
“We really need on EAST side of town on major roads or intersection. Business or Residential. Thanks for any and all help you can give,” Robinson wrote 40 employees on Sept. 18, 2012, a Tuesday, at 12:16 p.m.
Moreover, Robinson and Winkler herself routinely post on Facebook during the course of the workday. In the last 90 days, Winkler took to Facebook at least 49 times during her office hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Her posts covered everything from political campaigns — including her own — Republican Party events, birthdays, family photos, fundraisers and, on the morning of Oct. 7, a video clip from the old I Love Lucy show.
Robinson drifts into Facebook on taxpayer time, too. At 1:26 p.m. on Monday, April 25, he wrote “Help Support Tracy Winkler keep her seat as the Clerk of Courts! Come meet Tracy and help her in her RE-ELECTION bid against the other guy!”
Robinson went after the Clintons in daytime Facebook posts on Sept. 30 and Oct. 4. In the morning of Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, he shared a friend’s post of a confederate flag. Robinson could not be reached for comment Thursday.
“He’s working for the (Republican) party while he’s being paid by the taxpayers,” said a former Winkler employee who asked not be identified for fear of repercussion. “The closer it gets to an election, he’s 95 percent political.”
The source said that during Winkler’s 2012 campaign, Robinson recruited employees to stuff envelopes with political flyers and make phone calls to voters. The work was done at Republican headquarters during lunch breaks.
“You know if you didn’t do it, your shit was weak,” the source said.
Whether any of these workday Facebook posts or emails went through county-issued equipment was not immediately verifiable. In a statement to WCPO, Winkler said that “no county resources were used to further my election, and nothing illegal occurred.”
But personal use of taxpayer equipment was enough of a problem in 2012 that Mark Waters, Winkler’s top administrator and second-in-command, had to remind employees of office policy forbidding it. “Of particular concern,” he wrote in a June 15, 2012, memo to “Clerk_Everyone,” was employee use of Facebook and other social media, “even when on break.”
“The office has received recent complaints from members of the public about employees visiting such sites during work hours,” Waters wrote. “In addition to violating office policy, such actions are very unprofessional and reflect badly on the entire office. It is expected that all employees will strictly adhere to this policy in the future. Violations of the policy may result in disciplinary action.”
CityBeat tried to reach Waters for details of any such disciplinary actions. A woman answering the phone in the court clerk’s main office said Thursday, “No one is currently available to talk to you.”
The practice of prodding employees to help the re-election campaigns of their bosses is widely frowned upon and has given rise to civil service protections at the federal, state and local government levels. But because the Hamilton County court clerk’s office considers all 220 of its employees “unclassified” — based on an opinion from county prosecutor Joe Deters — they aren’t protected from solicitations to pitch in.
The Winkler email flap elicited a vow from her Democratic opponent, Aftab Pureval, to end the practice if he is elected.
“There is a litmus test you have to pass to get a job in our courts,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not about your qualifications and resume; it’s about whether you’ll pledge allegiance to one political party and donate your time and money to keep them in power.”
On Wednesday, Ohio state Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-North Avondale, went one step further. He asked the three-member Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to request an investigation of the matter by Deters. The board has not formally acted on the request. Since two of the commissioners are Republicans, at least one would have to consent to the request. One of the commissioners is Deters’ brother, Dennis Deters.
Thomas said he plans to pursue the matter at the state level.
“Clearly there was solicitation to the employees. The solicitation took place during working hours. And the tone of one of the emails was threatening,” he said. “There’s no way this can be an acceptable practice."