"I don't think it's legal for a state employee to get involved in a partisan election using state resources," said Roane County Election Commissioner Jim Ryans.
But Johnson depicts the matter as a "lapse in judgment" in which an employee reserved a domain name for the candidate as an unpaid favor outside business hours. He said no further campaign work occurred.
According to Ryans, Roane County Administrator of Elections Charles Holiway presented evidence to state Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins last week, showing that the Internet protocol addresses for Ferguson's campaign website were registered through the district attorney's office.
The evidence also suggested that Johnson's administrative assistant, Angie Vittatoe, registered domain names, including voteforferguson.com and voteforferguson.biz.
Holiway asked Goins to investigate whether Johnson violated the state's "Little Hatch Act," which prohibits state employees from participating in partisan elections.
Blake Fontenay, communications director for
the state Attorney General's Office, said the state Election Commission had received notice of the allegations but did not feel it had the authority to investigate. Fontenay said the issue was more likely to be investigated by the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.
Drew Rawlins, executive director of the bureau, said his office would not have the jurisdiction to investigate possible violations of the Little Hatch Act. He said the local district attorney's office would be the appropriate office to perform such an investigation.
"This is unusual because it involves the DA's office. I would think they would have to have another DA's office investigate," Rawlins said.
According to a May 13 letter from Johnson to Holiway, Johnson has already conducted his own investigation. He claims no prior knowledge that Ferguson was using the DA's office address and resources for the campaign.
Johnson acknowledges that an employee set up a website for Ferguson's fishing rodeo last year.
He describes Ferguson as "someone who in his former role as a state representative was always a supporter of law enforcement, the state district attorneys and state employees."
Several months ago, Ferguson asked the employee to set up his campaign website, but she declined, Johnson said. Instead, Ferguson asked the employee to reserve a domain name for his campaign website. She did this using Ferguson's credit card.
"This was apparently done early in the morning or late in the evening when she was unable to reach Ferguson to determine what name … and what address … he wanted to use for the domain registration," the letter continued.
According to Johnson, the employee "listed her name and the district attorney's address for the domain registration. She then later gave the credit card and domain information to Ferguson and requested him to change the name and the address. This obviously never happened."
Johnson claims his employee never performed any work on Ferguson's website. He said he researched state law and did not feel the actions of his assistant were a breach of the law.
"Whereas the federal Hatch Act is certainly more restrictive, the state 'Little Hatch Act' is more protective of the state employee involvement in campaigns, etc.," he wrote.
Johnson concludes his letter by saying he has addressed the issue with the employee and through the proper channels. He described the matter as "an unfortunate lapse in judgment when she was merely performing an uncompensated favor."
Ryans said he believes it unlikely that Johnson did not know about the work his assistant was performing for Ferguson. Johnson and Ferguson have had a close connection since they served in the state Legislature together, Ryans said.
Ryans will be in Nashville on Monday for a state Election Commission meeting, where he said he intends to continue to push for an investigation.
"We need to determine just who is responsible for investigating this and put the ball in their court," Ryans said.