The Maryland state prosecutor has opened a criminal investigation into Montgomery County officials' use of taxpayer dollars to advocate for a ballot measure that, if passed, would affirm the county's decision to revoke the police union's ability to bargain almost every management decision.

The use of public funds -- instead of money raised by a ballot issue committee -- to campaign for the measure may violate election law and result in a fine of up to $25,000 and up to a year in prison, State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt said in a letter to the Montgomery County Council and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. Any county employee who engages in politicking on the job could face a misdemeanor charge of up to $3,000 and up to six months in prison.

The Office of the State Prosecutor is investigating the county's practices "to determine whether any criminal violations warranting criminal prosecution have been committed," Davitt wrote.

The county's Office of Public Information has spent at least $6,000 buying campaign paraphernalia -- nearly $4,000 just on yard signs, receipts show -- and ads on the sides of buses, said Patrick Lacefield, the office's director.

Lacefield said he registered a campaign committee to advocate on the issue on Oct. 8 -- a day off -- on behalf of committee Chairman Arnold Gordon. However, the committee is not listed in Maryland campaign finance records, and Jared DeMarinis, the state Board of Elections' director of candidacy and campaign finance, said last week that he was not aware of its existence.

Committee Treasurer Vernon Ricks said the committee has raised about $400. Because of the lack of funds, it has not bought any ads and has been distributing posters and signs paid for by the county.

County Attorney Marc Hansen said the state's investigation into the county's practices -- prompted by a request from the Fraternal Order of Police -- is misguided.

The county is allowed to advocate on behalf of its own laws, Hansen wrote in a letter to Davitt, and the state Board of Elections allowed the county to campaign for the ambulance fee when it was on the ballot in 2010.

Lacefield said the county has no intention of stopping.

"If county residents feel that these interests are not appropriately represented by their elected officials, their solution lies at the ballot box," Hansen wrote, "not in the courthouse dock."