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Special Report: Lawbreakers on the Ballot

As we head into this November’s general election, many important issues and races will be determined.

A new U.S. President will be chosen, of course, but the arguably more important races are right here in Mid-Missouri: who will you choose to serve and protect you here at home?

It is easy to assume that since a person has qualified to appear on an official ballot, somebody, somewhere must have vetted that candidate, right?

But just who is watching the people who are supposed to be watching after us?

The sheriff of Osage County was in a Boone County courtroom just this week, accused of pointing a loaded gun at another officer’s head in a Hartsburg bar: the same sheriff who’s already on probation for harassing a police officer.

And, recently Pulaski County commissioners refused to swear-in a newly re-elected town marshal after the town’s top-cop was indicted by a grand jury on multiple charges including falsifying police reports.

With some Mid-Missouri law enforcement officers seemingly gone wild, it really got my attention when I received this anonymous letter. It contained allegations against a candidate for sheriff of Saline County. The letter stood out because the candidate is running for that county’s top law enforcement job after its longtime sheriff was forced out of office after stealing taxpayer money.

The letter claims Jesse Coslet, one of the nine candidates for Saline County sheriff, is a felon, and as a felon, he’s ineligible to run for office according to Missouri state law.

But is Coslet a felon?

Coslet says, “No.”

Chapter 115 of the Missouri Revised Statutes clearly states: “No person shall qualify as a candidate for elective public office in the state of Missouri who has been found guilty of or pled guilty to a felony (…) under the laws of this state.”

Not being truthful on that form is a felony.

But who checks this stuff? I called the state attorney general’s office, area prosecutors and various county clerks’ offices. I also visited the Saline County Clerk’s office.

It’s a common belief among voters that when a person qualifies for office the candidate is investigated or somewhat vetted, but as Saline County Clerk Debbie Russell points out, that’s not the case… at all.

Russell says, “Once that you’ve signed an affidavit saying that you’ve not been say or that you do not owe any taxes that alleviates me from that responsibility.”

She says it’s not her office’s job to do such check.

Russell says, “If I would choose to do that it would be for my own voting purposes, as a private citizen. But I am not under any legal obligation to do that.”

Russell says even when she *wants to do more research on a candidate, it’s on the verge of inappropriate for the official in charge of free and fair elections to get involved in political battles.

Since it’s our job as journalists to hold accountable those who seek influence and power, I checked out some of the claims made against the candidate for sheriff.

Jesse Coslet is practically a public figure already. He’s a battalion chief for the Marshall Fire Department and an employee of the Saline County Sheriff’s Office. He also holds positions on the Saline County Ambulance District and the county’s 911 commission.

When I started checking into Coslet’s background, there is no felony conviction, but there is evidence of efforts to get something expunged – or removed. That “something” is a case with a Suspended Imposition of Sentence. That’s a court sentencing term that allows a person to be found or plead guilty an offense without it showing on the person’s record, almost like it’s not really there… Almost. It doesn’t show up as to not hurt a person’s chance of getting a job; even if that job is county sheriff.

Coslet took all of my calls to answer questions. He even came from Marshall to our studios in Columbia to address the issue. He chose *not to discuss what was *not appearing on his record, but says the letter and allegations are just politics.

He says, “I knew this would start. Just because I’m the only threat out of all the candidates that’s running. And, I’m not backing down.”

Although Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Don Stouffer refused to discuss any details of a “possible” past case against Coslet, he did tell me Coslet is not a felon.

As far as the way Coslet is handling the allegations and claims?

He says he is not a felon and is not dropping out of the race. And if he doesn’t win Coslet says, “So be it! If the citizens don’t want Jesse Coslet as the sheriff of Saline County, I’m good with what I’m doing.

And when it comes to assuming that someone’s has been vetted just because a candidate’s name appears on an official ballot.

Russell says, “That cannot be an assumption. Honestly, you need to educate yourself. You need to take it upon yourself as a voter to make intelligent decisions and to me that would be doing your own investigating. If you have reason to believe someone’s not who they say they are, or if they’ve got some type of background issue that may be an issue for you or the community, that’s up to you to find that out and make your best educated decision at that point.

Falsifying any information to an election official is a felony in Missouri. Since the Secretary of State’s office has no prosecutorial power, prosecution has to be handled by the Attorney General’s office or a local prosecutor, depending on the election.

A bill has been passed in the both the Missouri House and Senate to give the secretary the power to prosecute people who aren’t truthful. It’s in a house committee tonight.

Sheriff of Saline County is, of course, just one race out of many that will be decided in Mid-Missouri this year.

Never assume someone else did the vetting of the candidates on the ballot.

One great thing about deciding a local issue – that’s different from choosing a u-s- president – you can call or go straight to the candidate yourself, to ask questions and get answers.

*For an extended interview with Saline County Clerk, Debbie Russell, go here.

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