COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Taking matters into his own hands, former Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher on Friday filed a request for an injunction asking the court to revoke the recently elected Jody Greene’s powers and allow Hatcher to resume the role of the top law enforcement officer in the county.
Attorney Oscar Blanks was with Hatcher at the Superior Court clerk’s office and is representing him in the case.
The argument laid out in the complaint has three major tenets: the county failed to follow statutory protocol when seating Greene; Greene does not live in Columbus County; and there are concerns of absentee by mail ballot irregularities similar to those in Bladen County.
Hatcher, a Democrat, lost to Greene, a Republican newcomer, by 37 votes in the November general election, leading to a recount and several election protests alleging various issues.
The Columbus County Board of Elections dismissed those protests and Greene was sworn in days later apparently in violation of state law, which requires a county board of elections to wait five days before a candidate’s swearing-in after dismissing a protest.
Further complicating matters, those protests were appealed to the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE), which to this point has been focusing primarily on its investigation into absentee by mail ballot irregularities in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.
The complaint filed Friday asks that Hatcher be returned to his post as sheriff until the NCSBE hears those appeals.
However, there is currently no NCSBE after a court ruling went into effect on Dec. 28. A new board is not set to convene until Jan. 31.
Though it has not been able to consider the appeals, the state late last month asked the Columbus County Board of Elections to hold off on issuing a certificate of election to Greene, calling the legitimacy of his swearing-in into question. Pointing to a section of the state constitution, the state said Hatcher should remain sheriff of Columbus County in the interim.
Because Greene has no certificate of election, and because the county failed to follow state law in how he was sworn in, the complaint argues he is not the rightful sheriff, and should cease acting as such.
The complaint also references the allegations in those election protests that Greene is not a legal resident of Columbus County.
When he filed to run for office, Greene listed a Cerra Gordo address, but an investigation by WECT shows no evidence that he or his wife live there, or that there is even a house.
The complaint lists Greene as a resident of Robeson County or Horry County, SC. The Greenes own a waterfront home in North Myrtle Beach.
Greene has refuted these claims, but has not provided any proof that he does in fact reside in Columbus County.
According to state law, someone running for sheriff must have lived in the county for at least a year prior to the election.
Until Greene proves he lives in the county, the complaint says, he should not be serving as sheriff.
Records show a startling percentage of absentee by mail ballots requested in Columbus County were not returned.
In total, 34 percent of the ballots did not come back, a higher number than the rates in Bladen and Robeson counties, where the numbers set off enough alarm bells to help launch an election fraud investigation.
McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the investigation, was reportedly at the Columbus County Board of Elections frequently during the campaign.
Blanks said during a brief press conference that Dowless' role in the local election is of concern to him and his client, and they will leave “no stone unturned” to get to the bottom of it.
“We deserve to know what happened in this election," Blanks said. "How were the absentee ballots gathered? What role did Dowless, McCrae and Red Dome play in our local elections? I intend to find the truth, indeed, to get the answers we all deserve.”
Hatcher initially said he would resume the role of sheriff if asked. No one appears to be asking, as county officials indicated days ago they were awaiting further guidance from the state on how to proceed.
That guidance became even cloudier after a three-judge panel recently dissolved the state board of elections, leading to a political back-and-forth on how to proceed with the ongoing NC09 investigation.
In addition to Greene — individually and “in his disputed official capacity as sheriff” — the defendants in the case are the county commission and county manager, in their official and individual capacities.
The complaint argues county officials failed to do their duty in ensuring the correct steps were taken prior to Greene’s illegal swearing-in, and failed to remove him even after the state’s order.
It is unclear when the court will consider Hatcher’s injunction request, but Blanks said he hopes a hearing will be scheduled in the next few weeks.