COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A judge from another jurisdiction is heading to Columbus County this week to hear arguments that Lewis Hatcher should be reinstated as the county’s sheriff.
Hatcher filed a motion for injunctive relief on Jan. 4, demanding to be recognized as sheriff until ongoing disputes about the sheriff’s election can be resolved by the state.
Republican challenger Jody Greene received 37 more votes than Hatcher after a hand recount was finalized on Nov. 30 but several Columbus County residents formally challenged the election results, and have appeals pending with the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
The protests question whether Greene lived in Columbus County for a year prior to the sheriff’s election as required by North Carolina law. They also question irregularities with absentee ballots in the election.
Nearly 200 absentee ballots disappeared in the close race, and some of the same players caught up in an election fraud investigation in neighboring Bladen County were hired to work on Greene’s campaign in Columbus County.
After WECT reported that 32 percent of the absentee ballots in the county went missing, state elections investigators came to Columbus County to collect absentee ballots request forms, envelopes, and other paraphernalia as they seek to determine whether these irregularities could have altered the outcome of the sheriff’s race.
State Board of Elections officials and the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office say under state law the incumbent Hatcher should still be serving as sheriff until these protests are settled.
In an apparent violation of state law, Columbus County officials swore in Jody Greene as sheriff on Dec. 3. After county officials were notified by state officials they had acted improperly, county officials refused to undo anything, saying it was up to the state to straighten out the dispute over who should be sheriff. Greene has refused to step aside despite word from the Attorney General’s Office that he is not the lawful sheriff of Columbus County.
It will likely be February before the State Board of Elections can consider the elections protests in the Columbus County sheriff’s race so Hatcher is asking a judge to reinstate him as sheriff in the interim.
According to a published report, Columbus County Judge Douglass Sasser recused himself from this hearing because he knows all of the parties involved. A trial court coordinator WECT spoke to said she was not aware Sasser had recused himself, but said a judge from another jurisdiction was being brought in because this was an exceptional case.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin’s office confirmed to WECT on Monday he has appointed Wake County Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley to preside over the hearing Hatcher has requested. WECT is aware of at least one other election-related case Shirley has presided over.
In October 2017, Shirley ruled in favor of allowing an early voting site at Appalachian State University after board of elections members in Watauga County could not reach a unanimous consensus on an early voting plan.
Hatcher’s hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, and courthouse insiders say they think it’s possible Shirley could make a decision that day about who will serve as sheriff until the State Board of Elections settles the dispute over Greene’s residency and absentee ballot irregularities.
In his complaint, Hatcher also gave notice he is suing county commissioners individually and in their official capacities for failing to take action to establish and support him as the lawful sheriff of Columbus County.
The commissioners plan to meet behind closed doors Monday to discuss their potential liability in this matter.