WHITEVILLE, NC (WECT) - With only five hours to spare, acting Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene posted a $25,000 bond to keep his seat as sheriff, for now. Wake County Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley ordered Greene to pay that bond as part of an ongoing legal dispute over who is the rightful sheriff of Columbus County.
Shirley made that order on Jan. 18, but gave Greene until Jan. 28 to come up with the sizeable cash bond. Shirley determined the amount based on the pay and benefits he estimates Lewis Hatcher has lost and will lose before the State Board of Elections (SBOE) can determine which sheriff’s candidate won the November election. The Columbus County Clerk of Court’s office says Greene paid the bond at 12:05 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 28.
Challenger Jody Greene had 37 more votes than incumbent Lewis Hatcher after a recount in late November, but there are several pending protests before the SBOE concerning that election. The SBOE is not expected to be able to consider those protests until mid-February, at the earliest.
Specifically, there are questions surrounding whether Greene lives in Columbus County as he is required to by law for one year immediately prior to a sheriff’s election. Also, an unusually high percentage of absentee ballots disappeared before the election.
Columbus County is part of a wider elections fraud investigation centered on absentee ballot irregularities in several counties that has delayed the certification of some candidates. Of the 557 requested absentee ballots in Columbus County, 181 disappeared before the election. Hatcher supporters believe foul play with those missing ballots may have altered the outcome of the election.
At issue now: who should be sheriff until the SBOE makes a decision. According to the SBOE and the State Attorney General’s Office, Hatcher should have remained sheriff until the elections protests could be settled. But for reasons unclear, and in apparent violation of state law, Columbus County swore Greene in as sheriff before a certificate of election in the race was issued.
After Columbus County was notified by the state that Hatcher should still be sheriff, Greene refused to step aside, prompting Hatcher to file a lawsuit earlier this month. Judge Shirley ordered that Greene pay $25,000 to fight the case, or it would be decided for Hatcher by default.
Shirley explained that even if Greene is ultimately certified as sheriff by the state, Hatcher has a viable legal argument that he should have been sheriff for the period of time between the election and the time the race was certified. So he could still potentially recover damages for the pay and benefits he lost in the interim.
A jury is scheduled to hear this case on February 11, and may ultimately determine who should serve as sheriff until the State Board of Elections settles this. Shirley has ruled that the trial will be held outside of Columbus County in an effort to find an impartial jury.