Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Alice Echo-News Journal

During a recent interview, Jim Wells County Sheriff Oscar Lopez said he utilized his staff to assist with his campaign fundraising during office hours, as well as using county property and equipment for political activity, which may be a violation of the Texas Penal Code.

Lopez said, though, that such activity has been done in this way for 26 years.

In the days leading up to Jim Wells County Sheriff Oscar Lopez's re-election barbecue fundraiser held Nov. 4, office staff at the sheriff's department where involved with collecting and managing campaign contributions coming in from ticket sales during the office hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Lopez said Nov. 7.

Section 39.02 of the Texas Penal Code says it is an abuse of official capacity to misuse government property, services or personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government.

Jim Wells County Attorney Jesus Sanchez Vera also said, "it is wrong to use county employees to do any political work. They can, but after 5 p.m. or on weekends, not on county time."

She was speaking hypothetically and not specifically to the sheriff's actions.

Both community members and members of the sheriff's staff volunteered to sell barbecue tickets for his re-election, the sheriff said.

A mandatory department meeting was held weeks prior to the barbecue at the Jim Wells County Fairgrounds.

Lopez did not state the subject of the meeting, but did say it was mandatory for his employees.

Following the meeting, Lopez left the fairgrounds and Sheriff's Department Administrator Richard Palacios said that employees were told they could leave if they wanted to and some staff did leave at that time.

Those who stayed behind, Palacios said, volunteered to sell barbecue tickets for the sheriff's re-election campaign.

Palacios said some of the deputies who stayed were in department uniform and were using county vehicles as transportation to and from the county fairgrounds. Palacios said the decision to sell tickets was voluntary.

Also as part of his re-election campaign activity, Lopez produced a sign-up sheet nearly two months ago, for those employees interested in showing their support for his upcoming 2008 sheriff's race.

The sheet states, "We the personnel and staff of the Jim Wells County Sheriff's Department support our Sheriff Oscar Lopez for re-election in the upcoming 2008 sheriff's race."

There are 60 signatures on the form. Palacios said the form was made available at the Sheriff's Department and later in his office for employees to voluntarily sign.

Lopez said staff members were free to sign the paper both after their shift or while on duty. The form is used for advertising purposes.

"We've run this same ad in the newspaper for years," Lopez said.

He said no one had questioned such activities before.

Lopez produced a copy of the sign-in sheet to the Alice Echo-News Journal.

On Thursday, Lopez said the copy came from the sheriff's department. The form was copied using a county-owned machine, which may also violate the law.

Sanchez-Vera, again not specifically addressing the sheriff's actions, said "it's illegal to use county equipment for something like that. Any supplies, equipment, time or employees doing something for your election is prohibited, generally speaking."