COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - One-time Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher said Thursday evening that, if asked, he is willing and able to resume duties as the top law enforcement officer in the county.
State officials sent shock-waves through the county with a statement Thursday that former sheriff Hatcher should still be serving in that capacity at this time — because the candidate who county officials initially declared won the race, Jody Greene, has been sworn in and serving in that role for nearly three weeks.
However, Hatcher says no one has reached out to him since the news Thursday morning that state officials believe he should continue serving in the role of sheriff while protests filed in the sheriff’s election are considered.
“The only thing that I will say is if it works that way, I will resume it until the complaints or whatever are satisfied," Hatcher said. "Then, however it works out from there, so be it.”
Hatcher lost to Greene, a Republican, by 37 votes in a race that went to a recount and spawned election protests. Those protests have been appealed to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. However, the board will likely not be able to take those appeals into consideration until at least Jan. 11, when the state board is expected to hear evidence on voting irregularities in Bladen County.
On Thursday, the state confirmed they have asked the Columbus County Board of Elections to hold off on issuing a certificate of election to Greene. The county board completed its canvass, recount and dismissed protests on November 30, with the county moving to swear in Greene on Monday, December 3.
Acting elections director for Columbus County, Jackie Bozeman, said the state informed her office Wednesday that they should not issue the certificate of election to Jody Greene. Bozeman said she received word from the county attorney’s office to not issue the certificates as well. When reached by phone, Greene said he had no comment.
“He should not have been sworn in,” Patrick Gannon, a spokesperson for the state board of elections, said Thursday morning citing that a protest to the election has been filed with the state.
Action from the state follows multiple protests in the sheriff’s election. One, which alleged the sheriff does not even live in Columbus County, was initially tossed out on a technicality, but Bozeman said Thursday the parties had appealed to the state.
Those protests appear to be at the basis of what is causing these latest concerns. North Carolina General Statute 183A-1184 requires a county board of elections to wait five days after dismissing a protest to give the complainant time to appeal. By swearing in Greene only three days after a protest dismissal, the county did not wait the required time period. Furthermore, if the protest is appealed to the state, the certificate of election is not able to be issued until the tenth day after a final decision by the state board.
Gannon indicated earlier this week the earliest the state board of elections would be able to take up this appeal would be after January 11th, when the state is expected to hear evidence on voting concerns in Bladen County. That means Greene would not get final word on whether he could serve until at least late January.
A delay for swearing in a newly elected officeholder does have precedent. In 2016, a protest in New Hanover County delayed the seating of three commissioners after an appeal to the state board of elections. However, this case is slightly different in the fact that Columbus County did not delay swearing in Greene. It’s unclear at this time who will resolve the question about who should be serving in this interim period.
When reached for comment by phone, Columbus County Manager Mike Stephens said, "(I) don’t know of any action we can take at this point.”
County Attorney Amanda Prince has not returned a message for comment.
More pressing for the citizens of Columbus County at this point is who should be in charge of law enforcement in the area.
Gannon cited Section 10 of Article VI in the state constitution which reads, “In the absence of any contrary provision, all officers in this State, whether appointed or elected, shall hold their positions until other appointments are made or, if the offices are elective, until their successors are chosen and qualified.”
So essentially, the state believes Hatcher should remain in the position through this protest period. As of late Thursday, Hatcher had not heard from any county officials on whether he should resume his position as sheriff.
Columbus County Board of Commissioners Chair Trent Burroughs told WECT that he is looking into the situation more.
District Attorney Jon David said he has been in touch with county officials throughout the day on this situation.
“I have been reassured that they (are) coordinating with the attorneys at the state board of elections to resolve this issue,” Jon David said Thursday. “My only comment will be along the lines of reassuring the community that we have continuity of the law enforcement function during this interim time period. We will research what impact, if any, this has on new cases.”
Earlier investigations by WECT showed Columbus County exhibited the same trend of absentee by mail ballots not being returned during the 2018 election. Out of 557 requests for absentee ballots, 181 were not returned.
“I’m sure there has been some discrepancy in absentee ballots in the past, but the thing that concerns me is the number of absentee ballots that can’t be accounted for in this election,” Hatcher said. “I would simply like to know where are they.”
The state traveled to the area Thursday to pick up the county’s absentee ballot envelopes and request forms, as well as the absentee log — the same documents the state pulled from the Bladen County board of elections in its election fraud investigation.
Bozeman said this is the first time in her 10 years with the elections office that something like this has happened, but that the office is working directly with the state.
“Our office here, we strive to do our best, and we work to stay within the law, and if there’s questions that we can’t answer, we call home," Bozeman said. “Home to us is the state board, and the state board is working with us very closely,”