Election officials absolve Stoffregen in poll dispute

Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III did not break state election laws when pollsters he hired failed to divulge that the poll was being done on the sheriff’s behalf, investigators said.

Virginia code requires that pollsters identify on whose behalf they are asking questions.

Stoffregen is not culpable because the failure to identify his campaign was not “willful” and he was not aware the poll was being conducted, William W. Davenport, Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney said in a letter to William Hamblen, Prince William’s chief Circuit Court judge.

John Collier, a Prince William police lieutenant and Stoffregen’s opponent in the upcoming Tuesday Democratic primary filed a formal complaint with election officials regarding the poll. Prince William-Manassas Regional Jail Superintendent Col. Glendell Hill, the Republican in the race, considered filing a complaint as well, but didn’t.

Davenport was asked to investigate because Stoffregen and Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul D. Ebert work closely together. Ebert asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, Stoffregen said. He called the complaints “frivolous.”

Collier said Wednesday the investigation was “incomplete,” because as a complainant, he was never interviewed. His campaign has filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request with Davenport’s office, asking for all documents, e-mails, data and written conclusions related to the investigation.

Chesterfield Deputy Common-wealth’s Attorney Kenneth E. Nickels, who conducted the investigation, could not be reached Wednesday. Hill could not be reached either.

The poll was conducted by Hamilton, Beattie and Staff, a Washington, D.C., firm that conducts such surveys across the nation. The company was not aware of the law, said partner David Beattie. The firm followed standard polling practice by not identifying Stoffregen’s campaign. Virginia is the only state that charges pollsters with identifying themselves.

“There is no reason they would have known about it,” Beattie said of Stoffregen and his campaign staff. “It’s our job as professionals to know about those things.”

Stoffregen contends he was unaware the poll had even started, because he had not signed off on it. His campaign discussed polling, but the firm jumped the gun, he said.

He called the polling company “professional” because they took responsibility for the mistake. The campaign has not yet paid for the poll, which costs between $10,000 and $15,000. Stoffregen is planning on paying in full, he said.

Beattie will most likely reduce the cost, but hasn’t yet decided what it will be, he said.

The poll focused on general election issues and asked many name-recognition questions about Hill, and similar questions about Collier.

Stoffregen, who was “very pleased” has never conducted a poll before, but decided to do so because 30,000 new registered voters have moved to Prince William County since Stoffregen’s 1999 reelection.

Staff writer Daniel Drew can be reached at (703) 878-8065.