Photos of Calif. council candidate in firefighting gear prompts investigation
In a campaign ad, Jackson Hinkle posted photos of him wearing Orange County Fire Authority gear and posing in front of a fire truck
By Erika I. Ritchie
The Orange County Register
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — Photos of Jackson Hinkle — one of five candidates vying for one open seat on the San Clemente City Council — that show him wearing Orange County Fire Authority gear have prompted an investigation by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department into a possible violation of government code.
The photos, including one in which Hinkle is wearing an OCFA jacket and a fire helmet that bears his last name, were taken during an Aug. 31 event at OCFA headquarters in Irvine sponsored by the Orange County Professional Firefighter’s Association Local 3631. The photos were posted on social media, but most have since been removed.
Under the most scrutiny are photos that appeared on the Instagram account for Hinkle’s campaign that showed him wearing an election T-shirt and an OCFA helmet. Similarly, in a campaign ad, Hinkle promoted his endorsement from the firefighter’s association and showed a photo of himself standing in front of a fire truck with the OCFA logo.
At least seven elected officials also attended the event including San Clemente Councilwoman Kathy Ward, who is on the OCFA board and Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, who is running for state Senate and also was endorsed by the union.
“I was appalled to see a public entity, funded by taxpayers, being utilized for campaign purposes,” said San Clemente resident Tony Rubilino, who said he saw the photos in early September. “I had initially reached out to the Local 3631 Union to address this, however, my concern was dismissed. I decided I had to take the concern straight to OCFA and they were so astonished by this atrocious misuse of public funds that they immediately sought legal counsel to issue a cease and desist which highlighted multiple infractions.”
Hinkle did not return requests for comment.
Dave Kendig, whose office serves as general counsel for OCFA, sent an email dated Sept. 13 to Hinkle asking him to immediately remove from his campaign website the images of him wearing OCFA gear.
“The OCFA has received several complaints from the public about the attached pictures that were posted on your campaign Facebook page,” Kendig wrote. “The photos include an image containing an identifiable portion of the OCFA’s service mark on a fire truck door and other images of firefighters who appear to be in their OCFA uniforms at an event that used OCFA resources. These photos raise three legal concerns … that warrant you promptly removing the photos from your campaign materials, including the campaign Facebook page.”
Kendig went on to cite California government code which mandates that an officer or employee of a local agency cannot participate in political activities while in uniform.
A campaign flier shows Jackson Hinkle sporting Orange County Fire Authority gear.
“OCFA’s personnel had no intention of engaging in political activity at the pictured event,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the campaign’s posting of these photos of firefighters on its social media page could prompt an investigation to determine whether the OCFA employees violated section 3206.”
He also wrote that it is unlawful for officials to use public resources for campaign purposes, and doing so potentially triggers campaign reporting requirements.
“The OCFA had no knowledge, much less an intent, that its resources would be used to promote your (or any) campaign for office,” Kendig wrote. “However, members of the public viewing the photos on campaign materials and social media will have no way of knowing that and may file complaints against the OCFA.”
Colleen Windsor, communications director for OCFA, said the event, designed to demonstrate the job firefighters do, was handled entirely by Local 3631 and had nothing to do with OCFA. She said invitations to the event were handled by the union.
Windsor said OCFA gear, equipment and personnel are routinely used in countywide educational events.
“We’re always concerned with perception,” she said. “We are entrusted with taxpayers dollars and we would not want that (incorrect) perception out there.”
At the August event, candidates were allowed to wear firefighting gear and participate in simulated firefighting scenarios. Hinkle posted that his invitation was verbal but other invitations, according to public records, were sent out by the union’s political affairs director.
“Following my endorsement from the Orange County Professional Firefighters, I had the opportunity to join our local firefighters at a Fire Ops event. This day showed me the smoke, the sweat, the adrenaline rush and the physical strain that firefighters face on their job daily,” Hinkle wrote in a Sept. 3 Facebook post.
“Thank you to our local firefighters for giving me this opportunity & endorsing my campaign for San Clemente City Council!”
The union has donated $7,000 to Hinkle’s campaign.
The Nov. 5 election is being held to fill the vacant seat on the dais following the sudden death this summer of Mayor Steven Swartz.
OCSD spokeswoman Carrie Braun said, “We have an investigator looking to see if there were any violations of the government code,” but that it has not been submitted to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
But the District Attorney’s office is reviewing a separate complaint from a member of the public, spokeswoman Kimberely Edds confirmed.
The event was attended by about 20 to 30 other people, said San Clemente Councilwoman Ward.
“It was interesting to see fire up close,” she said, adding that she wore an OCFA firefighter’s helmet for safety. “It was interesting to see how hard it was to climb into an engine. I watched them saw a car apart. It was all about demonstrating what it’s like to be a fireman. None of it was done to stage for a campaign.”
Ward dismissed allegations that she had invited Hinkle or attended the event with him. She also said claims that he was the only non-elected person there were untrue.
“I don’t even understand why the sheriff is investigating this,” she said. “The sheriff needs to close this as soon as possible.”
Ward said Hinkle used poor judgment by displaying the photos on his campaign website and social media but chalked it up to a rookie mistake.
“When you’re a public official they say you can’t use any logos and we all know that,” she said.
Costa Mesa Mayor Foley, whose city does not contract with OCFA, also posted a photo on Facebook, Sept. 1, in which she is wearing an OCFA firefighter’s helmet. She said she was invited to the event as mayor of Costa Mesa as were others on the Costa Mesa City Council.
She said she was surprised by the OCSD investigation into something she saw as an educational event.
“I gave a report at the City Council meeting of what I learned that day,” she said. “Most of what I learned was about the science of smoke.”
Foley said she posted photos of herself as an example of what she did that day.
“I post every day what I’m doing in the community,” she said. “I’m doing that for transparency.”
©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)