WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - We are learning new details about the basis for a State Bureau of Investigation case involving a local political group. WECT has obtained emails that indicate a New Hanover County District Court judge, who previously served as president of the Lower Cape Fear Republican Women’s (LCFRW) group, was directly involved in the sale and auction of two hats that were allegedly marketed as being signed by President Donald Trump, when in fact, the president’s signature on those hats was digitally printed.
The SBI has confirmed it is investigating the political group at the request of the Wilmington Police Department and the District Attorney. In addition to allegations of fraud surrounding the sale of the hats, which were auctioned off for nearly $1,600 to a woman who believed the signatures were authentic, we’re told the SBI is looking at irregularities with the group’s financial records.
An e-mail provided to WECT by Gabrielle Barone, the outgoing president of the LCFRW, shows that Judge Sandra Ray knew the hats were not personally signed by the president.
“Hats are signed by auto pen so that is not something we would put in live auction,” Ray wrote on October 18, 2019, to several other members of the Republican women’s group who were helping organize the fundraiser. At the time, Ray was serving as president of the LCFRW.
The hats were sold as part of the silent auction instead. According to the item description on the bid sheet, they were listed as “Signed Trump Hat #1 donated by Linda Yunaska” and “Trump Hat #2 donated by Linda Yunaska.” The starting bid amount for the hats was $50 each.
Linda Yunaska is a member of the LCFRW and is also mother to Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, giving some bidders further reason to believe the hats were hand-signed. Each hat received at least a dozen bids, and then-New Hanover County Commissioner Pat Kusek was among the bidders offering hundreds of dollars to win them.
During a previous auction, members say authentically signed Trump hats were auctioned off, adding to the belief the hats up for auction during the 2019 fundraiser were quite valuable, and not mass manufactured. Lisa Wilkins, the woman who ultimately won the hats, continued to believe they were authentic for months until she went to have them insured. During that process, she was shocked to find the signatures were digitally produced, and worth only a fraction of what she paid for them.
Barone, who took over as president of the LCFRW group the month after the auction, was very concerned after learning from Wilkins that the hats may have been misrepresented to drive up the sales price. She said her efforts to investigate the matter were not welcomed.
“I have been asking for three months for the bid sheet from the auction. I am the president of the club and they refuse to give me a treasurer’s report,” Barone told WECT. “As soon as I started asking questions, I was completely shut out…. They are already circling the wagons.”
The group also hired an attorney, Barry Henline, to deal with Wilkins request for proof of authenticity of the hats and then later, her demand for a refund on grounds that the hats were misrepresented.
We have been unable to reach Henline for comment on concerns the hats were misrepresented. We have tried on numerous occasions over a period of weeks to reach Judge Ray since the SBI investigation was announced. She has not returned our calls.