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Columbus County Sheriff Office Still Contested, Investigated; Incumbent Candidate Sues Sworn-in Competitor

by: Tristan Dufresne,

WHITEVILLE, N.C. — The 2018 Democratic candidate for Sheriff of Columbus County, former incumbent Lewis Hatcher, will take his Republican opponent in November's contested general election, Jody Greene, to court for the office. 

In a motion filed by his legal team in Columbus Superior Court Friday, January 4, Hatcher’s legal counsel, Oscar M. Blanks III, called Greene, the acting sheriff, “a Usurper of authority” who “is unlawfully holding the Office of Sheriff of Columbus County, thus placing the citizens in grave risk.”

Hatcher, who was first appointed and then elected to a four-year term as Columbus County sheriff in 2014, wants to be seated as sheriff over Greene, whose eligibility for the office and process are contested by claims made in Harris' lawsuit.

Hatcher received 37 fewer votes than Greene, a hand recount of the November 6 election showed. 

But Greene's campaign has had a shadow cast over it by association with a political consulting firm that has come under state scrutiny in the unresolved U.S. congressional election for North Carolina's Ninth District. 

Blanks, on behalf of Hatcher, requests resolution of the state’s investigation into the race, as there are four complaints before the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement (SBEEE) relating to it.

Hatcher's lawsuit alleges that Greene is, by his own admission, a resident of either adjoining Robeson County or Cherry Grove, South Carolina. For eligibility, residence in the county for which the Sheriff's office is sought is required for one year immediately preceding election, as set forth in North Carolina General Statutes.

Despite the fact that no official Certificate of Election had yet been issued, Greene was sworn into office on the morning of December 3 by District Court Judge Ashley Gore during a special session. 

Another issue of contention is the process by which Greene was sworn into office. Public oath-of-office documents hold a signature that is not Gore’s, but by rather of North Carolina House Member Brenden Jones, representative for District 46, which covers roughly half of Columbus County as well as part of Robeson County. However, Blanks says Jones “cannot attest that [Greene] appeared before him to take the oath.” This discontinuity and possible fraud, Blanks argues, renders his status as sheriff “void ab initio,” or invalid from the outset.

Hatcher requested an injunction requiring Columbus county officials to recognize him as “the true and indeed Constitutional and Statutory Sheriff.”

Hatcher first took the office of Columbus County Sheriff in January of 2014 when he was appointed to the position by Columbus County commissioners upon the resignation of the former sheriff, Chris Batten. Later that same year, a solid majority of his constituents voted to keep Hatcher in the job.

The 2018 race was much closer, with unofficial results yielding a very narrow 37-vote victory for Greene. But suspicions were raised when finance records revealed the payments made by Greene’s campaign to the Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm that has come under scrutiny related to the actions of one of its associates in the race for a U.S. Congressional seat that elected Red Dome client Mark Harris. 

The investigation at first only involved absentee ballot irregularities in nearby Bladen and Robeson Counties. The uncertified sheriff’s race in Columbus County was, in late December, pulled into the scope of an SBEEE investigation currently unfolding in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District.

One person of interest named in documents released by state investigators is operative and Red Dome associate Leslie McCrae Dowless, who has worked on several campaigns for various state elected offices in North Carolina and was connected to Greene's campaign through the Red Dome Group.

The Red Dome Group was implicated in the mishandling of 9th District absentee ballots through the reported activities of Dowless.

The Sundial has attempted to reach Red Dome representatives for comment on multiple occasions, without a response.

The 2018 campaign of Brenden Jones, who disputes that he signed Greene's oath of office, also engaged Red Dome and participated in its "absentee program," as Jones acknowledged to the Columbus News Reporter.

Jones told the News Reporter, "My campaign became aware that Red Dome engaged in an absentee program for several campaigns in the 2018 general election. Concerning my campaign, I contracted with Red Dome to handle my day-to-day operations. Red Dome included an absentee program in my campaign as well, where they would send me notifications of absentee ballot requests that their company monitored so that my campaign could mail campaign literature or call the individual requester.”

Jones defeated Democrat Barbara Yates-Lockamy by the wide margin of 5,357 in the general election. 

The Wake County District Attorney’s office and SBEEE officials are now investigating Dowless’ get-out-the-vote efforts; specifically accusations that his staffers violated state law by collecting absentee ballots in unsealed envelopes, which could be tampered with. 

“The question is, were the ballots manipulated? Were they circumvented? Were they never delivered?” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of history and political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.

Approximately 336 tallied votes in the Hatcher-Greene race were mail-in absentee ballots, according the result breakdown posted to the SBEE website, with 243 of those cast for Hatcher, the remaining 93 going to Greene.

Bitzer thinks clarity about all the counties’ elections will elude us a little longer, “until the new state board [of elections] takes power and goes into effect…[and] we hear from the [SBEEE] investigators on this particular issue.”

If Greene is found to be illegally performing the office of sheriff, there may be a chance, as alleged in the court filing, that the county would face legal challenges over current searches, seizures and arrests.

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