Columbus County elections board hears protest of 2018 sheriff’s race, testimony to continue Thursday

Columbus County elections board hears protest of 2018 sheriff’s race, testimony to continue Thursday

WHITEVILLE, NC (WECT) - Nearly five months after Election Day, the Columbus County Board of Elections is considering an election protest in the race between Jody Greene and Lewis Hatcher.

The county was instructed by the North Carolina State Board of Elections to consider the merits of the protest from Gloria Smith after the county originally dismissed the protest and also consider allegations Greene does not live in Columbus County.

Protest

Much of the morning was spent with attorneys for both sides arguing the merits of certain pieces of evidence with regard to Smith’s case as Irving Joyner, an attorney for Smith, began questioning her.

Greene’s legal team, including Boyd Worley, argued several affidavits submitted as part of the protest should not count because they are not notarized sworn statements.

For a document to be a true affidavit, the signer must either in writing swear under penalty of perjury or do so in person in the presence of the notary.

One affidavit, which alleges an individual who was not listed as an official poll worker handled and inserted a woman’s ballot into the machine, was not objected to by Greene’s team.

Joyner questioned Smith for much of the morning about the different points in her protest, including the action of that poll worker.

Smith also testified to irregularities at both early voting and election day polling places, including an instance where a woman’s ballot was inserted by someone not on the official list of poll workers.

One of the issues was with nine absentee by mail ballots that were mailed despite the requests coming in after the deadline. Smith said CCBOE Executive Director Carla Strickland indicated the NCSBE directed the county to accept the ballots due to the administrative nature of the error.

However, Smith said, the county board did not count them.

Columbus County Board of Elections Executive Director Carla Strickland elaborated on the issue, saying there was more to it.

Strickland said her office received two bundles of absentee ballot requests after the deadline, one on Nov. 1, and one on Nov. 2. The first was from a nursing home, and Strickland said despite it being after the deadline, the ballots were erroneously mailed out.

Because no bi-partisan assistance team was dispatched to the nursing home, Strickland said she didn’t think any ballots were returned — until she was made aware the Monday after Election Day that the stack of nine ballots had been turned in to a precinct, and brought to the board office by the chief judge.

She said there is no way to know what time the ballots came in, or who exactly brought them, so she said she immediately contacted the NCSBE, which dispatched an investigative team.

Strickland said the board voted not to accept the votes during its absentee meeting. Then, she received a call from the NCSBE saying the state recommended accepting the ballots, but because the county board was already in its provisional process and, she said, because of the concerns, they decided not to accept them.

Another of Smith’s allegations was that the decision to close early or one-stop voting locations in certain areas of the county was racially motivated.

Strickland emphatically denied that, saying she refutes the claims in the strongest terms.

“There was no racial bias whatsoever in this process,” she said. “We put our voters first.”

Residency

The afternoon was dedicated to hearing testimony and examining evidence into whether or not Jody Greene lives in Columbus County.

More specifically, the county board’s attorney reminded them that the issue is whether or not Greene has a “domicile” in Cerro Gordo, as he claims, meaning a residence with the intent to make it his home.

Greene’s attorneys said they wanted it noted in the record they believe the law requiring a sheriff to live in the county for one year prior to the election is unconstitutional.

The board has no jurisdiction, and while noting the comments, said they would be evaluating the issue based on the statute as it stands.

Smith took the stand a second time and explained why the residency questions came to be part of her protest.

She said when she was going to deliver a copy of her protest to Greene in November, she searched his address online to figure out where she was going. When she did so, she said she noticed in the Google Map results that there appeared to be no house, but just trees.

Smith said she then looked up the address using the official plat description, but got the same result.

Then, she said, she decided to look up Greene’s tax records, and found that there was no structure declared at the address.

Curious, she said, she decided to drive out to Greene’s address to see for herself, and when she arrived she found “woods” and what she characterized as beige storage buildings with orange roofs.

During cross examination, Worley went back and forth with Smith about that visit, but also asked her about her own mail, tax records and drivers license.

Getting more direct, Worley asked Smith if she could list the evidence she has indicating Greene does not have a domicile in Columbus County, as the burden of proof is on her.

Smith objected, saying she was accompanied by legal counsel.

The second witness was a representative from the Columbus County tax office, who said during questioning that the land at Greene’s address is zoned and taxed as agricultural, and that no notice has been provided to his office that there is a habitable structure there.

Next on the stand was Calvin Norton, a Columbus County resident who is suing Greene, the Columbus County Board of Elections, the Columbus County Commission, Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVickers and others related to the 2018 election cycle.

Norton’s time on the stand was repeatedly interrupted with objections from Greene’s legal team, who asserted he was making statements beyond the line of questioning and going into hearsay.

His testimony hinged upon records he said he obtained both through public records requests and a federal subpoena — the latter of which drew scrutiny from Worley, who said he was being used as a “tool” because of this subpoena power.

Norton testified to a letter from Columbus County indicating that no utility permits exist for Greene’s address. He also testified regarding documents from the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles indicating that Greene and his wife purchased a recreational vehicle in 2017, registering it to their Horry County Address. Greene has said that RV was moved to the Cerro Gordo property, and WECT witnessed an RV matching the description in December.

Norton also testified to records regarding Greene’s residency he obtained from the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, which a separate, independent WECT investigation into the same records found did not align with Greene’s sworn statements.

It was during that testimony and a heated back and forth that Greene abrubtly walked out of the meeting, returning a few minutes later but not immediately to his original seat.

The final witness of the day was former Sheriff Lewis Hatcher.

Questioning of the former sheriff quickly devolved into a debate over whether or not entering certain documents into the record would be violation of a protective order issued by Judge Graham Shirley.

Ultimately, the documents were allowed and Hatcher testified to his knowledge of Greene’s residence.

He said he was made aware of the discrepancies on November 29, and he went to look himself, not finding a mailbox.

There was some back and forth between Hatcher and Worley about a summons issued to Greene when Hatcher sued Greene earlier this year.

Attorneys for both Smith and Hatcher said they had no further witnesses, but as it was nearly 6:15, the board decided to recess until Thursday before turning the testimony over to Greene’s team.

The hearing will reconvene at 9 a.m. Thursday morning at the Columbus County Courthouse.

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