ONLY ON 3: Campaign signs lead to questions of judicial misconduct
RINGGOLD, CATOOSA COUNTY, GA. (WRCB) - Campaign signs cover yards and buildings in Ringgold, each with a message for voters.
But as the July primary rounds the corner, there may be an issue with who is doing the swaying.
"A judge, or a candidate for judicial election shall not publicly endorse a candidate for political office," said Jeff Davis, Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission's Director.
Channel 3 called the Judicial Qualifications Commission, or JQC, after receiving numerous tips about two local judges.
Pictures provided to Channel 3 show a banner on part-time Juvenile Court Judge Michael Giglio's law office endorsing Michael Caldwell for superior court clerk.
Superior Court Judge Brian House, who serves in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, leases the building to Giglio.
House also currently employees Caldwell as his assistant.
Channel 3 found a similar sign in front of House's Ringgold home.
According the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, judges are not allowed to publicly endorse a candidate for public office.
A 1990 ruling says campaign signs are not to be placed on property owned by a judge.
Commission Director Jeff Davis says all judges know the rules.
"Every judge in the state is provided a copy of the code of judicial conduct, and is expected to know it, and expected to adhere to it," he told Channel 3 in a phone interview.
Channel 3 took a copy of the code of conduct when we paid a visit to Judge Brian House's home to ask about the signs.
He changed his story three times.
"I didn't put it there," said House, standing on his front porch Monday.
"I guess Mr. Caldwell did, I didn't put the sign up," he said, when asked who placed the sign on his property line.
"I have no idea who put it up there," House then said when asked if he believed Michael Caldwell would take responsibility for the sign's placement.
House then told us the sign was on his neighbor's property.
"I didn't put it there, I assumed Anthony put it there," he said.
Channel 3 talked to Judge House's neighbor, who tells us the sign is not his. He says it belongs to Judge House, and House didn't ask before placing it on the property line.
The neighbor's wife says her husband was unaware of her allowing the sign to be placed there when he talked to Channel 3.
When Channel 3 returned to the property 24 hours later, the sign was gone.
The sign has also been removed from Giglio's law building, who said over email it would not be proper for him to comment.
"After speaking with the Director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission this morning concerning your request for information, I must tell you that I do not think it would be proper for me to comment on any allegations or concerns relating to a political race," wrote Giglio.
After several attempts to reach Michael Caldwell at his office and home, he returned our calls claiming he put the sign on Giglio's building.
"I've had permission everywhere except the building," Caldwell told Channel 3 over the phone, "like I said, that was confusion, that was my fault."
As for the sign outside House's home, Caldwell claims he placed it on the neighbor's property.
"I positioned it more in their yard and it might have just, during mowing, it might have gotten moved," he said.
But the signs may not be the only issue.
House and Giglio have used their Facebook pages to "like" the pages of political candidates in local races.
The JQC tells Channel 3, that could also count as an endorsement or violation.
It's all a little frustrating for Caldwell's competitor, who says the sign controversy could sway voters.
"It is kind of disappointing to know something like that is happening," said Daniel McMurry, a local teacher gunning for the seat of superior court clerk, "I'm just trying to run my race, and get my story out there."
Tracy Brown, the third candidate in the running for superior court clerk, did not want to comment.
Georgia judicial code does allow judges to contribute money to a candidate's campaign. It's the public endorsement that is prohibited.
The JQC is aware of the issue. Director Jeff Davis says by law he can't comment on specific cases, or reveal if formal complaints have been filed.
Davis says violations can come with a range of punishments from private reprimands to removal from the bench depending on the gravity of the offense.
Stay with WRCBtv.com for updates to this story as they become available.