DECATUR — Howard Buffett says he has seen firsthand the importance of strong law enforcement over the past 20 years.
The 62-year-old philanthropist has traveled to places like El Salvador and Sierra Leone, witnessing the aftermaths of violence and comforting those who lost loved ones. Without law and justice, Buffett says there is chaos.
“Our sheriff’s office, and every other law enforcement agency, is critical to protecting the rights in our communities,” Buffett said. “We have to protect it.”
After Friday, Buffett will have a major role in protecting those rights as he was sworn in to serve out the remaining term of Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider, who announced his retirement earlier in the day.
More than 100 friends and family, elected officials and sheriff's deputies attended the ceremony at Scovill Golf Course Banquet Facility, where Buffett was sworn in by Macon County Circuit Judge A.G. Webber. He will begin full-time duties immediately and continue until a new sheriff is elected next fall.
“I’ll be in the office or on the road every day. And when I say every day, I’m going to try for seven days a week,” said Buffett, who has volunteered with the sheriff’s office for five years. “I’m looking at this as an opportunity to learn and contribute. I’ve only got a short time to do it, so I’m going to take advantage of that.”
Schneider, a Democrat who has served as sheriff since 2008, announced in April that he would not seek re-election. He said Friday that he was stepping down early in part because the stress of the job affected his personal health.
"I've obviously put in a long career, to the point where I was always saying that whenever I turned 50, I would be looking toward retiring," he said. "Now that it has come upon (the time that) I'm turning 50 in the next few days, and I'm looking forward to the next chapter in my life."
The appointment was first reported by the Herald & Review and other media outlets Wednesday.
The son of multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Howard Buffett came to Decatur in the 1990s to work for ADM. His foundation has donated millions of dollars to Decatur-area projects, including to the sheriff’s office, and he has been an unpaid auxiliary deputy sheriff for the department for five years and undersheriff since 2014.
Buffett was elected a commissioner of the Douglas County Board in Nebraska in 1998 and currently is on the corporate board of his father's Berkshire Hathaway. He previously has served on the boards of such companies as Archer Daniels Midland, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Inc. and ConAgra Foods.
Warren Buffett said on Friday that he supports his son and that "whatever Howie takes on, he'll do well."
"I'm sure it will not diminish activity for his philanthropy or the Berkshire Board," Warren Buffett told The Associated Press. "Howie has unlimited energy."
Howard Buffett has given millions of dollars to law enforcement, social services and other causes over the past few years through his private foundation, which focuses its work on global hunger and wildlife conservation.
In Decatur, he has donated $15 million for a new law enforcement facility to train police recruits from across the state; millions of dollars to the Decatur Park District for a new amphitheater, extension of a train at Scovill Zoo, and a sculpture park; and millions more to social service agencies, including the new headquarters for the United Way of Decatur and Mid-Illinois, support for domestic violence programs at Dove, Inc. and a new teen center for the Boys and Girls Club of Decatur.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, traveled to Decatur to act as a guest speaker, bringing along a cake shaped like a pink frosted donut. Heitkamp, who has known Buffett for four years, described him as passionate and committed, qualities she said he would bring to the sheriff’s office.
“Lots of people have a really good résumé, but you have to look beyond that and into their character,” she said. “The person who has the passion, the person who cares about the people that they serve. Who will serve the extra mile to protect the men and women who will protect the men and women of this office and who will go the extra mile to protect the men and women of this county. And that is Howard Buffett.”
In April, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association presented Howard Buffett with its highest honor, the High Sheriff Award, given out only four times before. Buffett has completed more 3,300 hours of patrol and training and has 76 weapons qualifications, according to the sheriff's office.
Schneider said he appointed Buffett because he did not want to create an unfair advantage for any of the three sheriff's lieutenants who have announced that they plan to run for the office in the November 2018 election. All three candidates — Democrats Jonathan Butts and Tony Brown and Republican Jim Root — told the Herald & Review on Wednesday that they supported the decision to appoint Buffett and attended the ceremony Friday.
"I'm happy that the department has three qualified candidates able to fulfill the duties of the office of sheriff," Schneider said. "But until that time comes, I want to make sure that the race is a fair race, and in doing so, Howard Buffett is the opportunity for me to ensure that that occurs in my absence."
Buffett said he was initially hesitant when Schneider broached the subject of the appointment, saying he did not know if he was the right person for the role. But as they continued to talk, Buffett said he warmed to the idea and became more confident in his ability to handle the responsibility
“This is perhaps the largest responsibility I’ve ever taken on,” he said. “I plan to do it with pride, honor and … passion.”
The sheriff oversees a $9 million annual budget and 166 full-time employees.
Other guests who made the trip to Decatur included Yuca County Sheriff Leon N. Wilmot and Cochise County’s Chief Deputy Thad Smith, both of whom made the 20-plus hour trip from Arizona to attend Friday’s ceremony and provide gifts for both Schneider and Buffett.
Wilmot said he has developed a friendship with Buffett and Schneider, getting to know both during their visits to the southwest and bonding over a shared love of helping their communities.
In their several years of friendship, Wilmot said he has known Buffett to be a dedicated man who is open-minded about how to fix problems. Those qualities, not the name or the money, are what Wilmot said will make Buffett a successful sheriff.
“It’s not about the name, it’s about the character of the man, and Howard’s character has always been a passion to do what’s right and for the rule of law,” Wilmot said. “I think Tom has picked the right person to fulfill that until the community votes for his successor.”
Buffett said he knew some would suggest he got the position because of his family name or financial contributions, but said after Friday’s ceremony that he would not let criticism distract him from the job at hand.
“They can think what they need to think,” Buffett said. “I’m going to do the best job that I can do.”
Buffett will not be accepting a pension or health insurance, but he will be taking the sheriff's salary of $93,856 for next year. He said he had hoped to take no salary or a symbolic $1, but was told that existing statute and county resolutions prevent him from doing so. He said he has not yet thought about whether he would donate his salary.
State law allows a retiring sheriff to name his successor. The Macon County Board then has 60 days to vote on an interim sheriff to serve the rest of the term. It could either vote to confirm Buffett's appointment or to choose someone else.
The board also could choose not to vote on the matter at all, Macon County State’s Attorney Jay Scott said Friday. If the board takes no action, Buffett would remain the acting sheriff until a replacement is elected.
Board Chairman Jay Dunn said Thursday evening that no decision has been made if or when the board will vote. He declined to comment on questions about Schneider stepping down or Buffett's appointment, and did not attend the swearing-in ceremony Friday.