Update, 5 p.m.
Lewis Hatcher says he’s ready to serve again as Columbus County Sheriff, if called upon, as a State Board of Elections spokesman said he should not have been replaced early this month, at least not yet.
Hatcher, Thursday afternoon, said he’s keeping a close eye on a state elections investigation that began in Bladen County and has expanded into Columbus and the sheriff’s race the Democrat incumbent appears to have lost in November.
Columbus County Board of Elections members certified Republican Jody Greene as the sheriff-elect late last month after conducting a recount and hearing evidence in one of three protests involving that race.
Greene won with an official 37-vote margin, and was sworn into office on Dec. 3, a week before the Columbus County Board of Elections met to conclude the protest hearing with a formal findings of fact and conclusions of law.
An investigation into a congressional election that involves Bladen County has focused on an unusually large number of absentee ballots that were requested, but not returned during the election process.
Allegations have been raised in the Bladen vote that absentee ballots were improperly “harvested,” with those likely cast for the Democrat candidate thrown away.
Hatcher said Thursday that he had questions about similar circumstances in Columbus County, with nearly a third of the 557 absentee ballots requested, a total of 181 never returned.
“My question was, where are they,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher said he’s not bitter over losing the election, if he lost fairly.
“Whatever’s done, I just want it done right,” Hatcher said. “I want it done fair. If you beat me, and you beat me fair and square, that’s fine.”
With a state Board of Elections spokesman saying Greene should not have been sworn in until appeals of protests in the election were decided, Hatcher said he’ll return to the sheriff’s office if called upon.
“However it works out, I’m still going to be satisfied,” Hatcher said.
Initial post, 12:30 p.m.
With his formal certification as sheriff not yet sent, Sheriff Jody Greene should not be in office, a spokesman from the North Carolina Board of Elections said today.
“Mr. Greene should not have been sworn in,” state board spokesman Patrick Gannon said.
Greene, a Republican, was sworn in on Dec. 3 after defeating Democrat incumbent Lewis Hatcher by 37 votes.
State Board officials notified the Columbus County Board of Elections Wednesday not to issue a certificate of election to Greene, Gannon said. That certificate has not been sent to Greene, interim local elections director Jackie Bozeman said Thursday.
Because the certificate has not been issued, Greene should not have been sworn, Gannon said.
“Sheriff Hatcher should still be serving as sheriff,” Gannon said.
Gannon cited state law that says elected officials remain in office “until their successors are chosen and qualified.”
Greene, after being sworn into office in a packed Superior Courtroom, quickly appointed Aaron Herring as his chief deputy, and has assembled his command staff, shuffling some positions at the sheriff’s office.
Greene told The News Reporter in Whiteville that he would be referring questions to his attorney.
Attorney Boyd Worley, who represented Greene in the post-election process, said Thursday that he was just learning of the new issues, and could not comment without learning more.
Just a day after Greene was sworn three Democrats – Nancy Hill, Gloria Smith and Franklin Thurman – appealed the county’s decisions.
All three had challenged the election in November, citing problems at South Williams precinct in Tabor City where ballots for those who live in the town limits were not available for nearly two hours on election day.
Those protests from Smith and Thurman were rejected by the Columbus County Board of Elections on procedural grounds, and after hearing evidence from Hill the board ruled that she did meet the burden of proving any election issues would have changed the outcome.
State elections officials were expected in Columbus County today to pick up absentee ballot envelopes, request forms, and the absentee log, the same items already pulled from the Bladen County Board of Elections in an election fraud investigation that focuses on the 9th Congressional District contest, WECT-TV reported.
For the November election 557 absentee ballots were requested in Columbus County, the station reported, more than double the number requested four years ago. Nearly a third of those ballots were not returned, 181 total. In 2014 only 14 percent of the requested ballots were not returned.
An elections consultant, McCrae Dowless, is accused of collecting ballots in Bladen County and discarding them if they were unfavorable to candidates hired by him, WECT reported. Those candidates include Republican Mark Harris who was seeking the congressional seat and Sheriff James McVicker, who won a re-election battle.
Greene also hired Dowless, through his firm Red Dome, for the 218 election cycle.
Left unclear was the status of other elections currently not under scrutiny, but whose certifications have also not been mailed to the winners.
“We have those in envelopes ready to go,” Bozeman said. “We’re waiting on direction from the state board.”
Others have also been sworn based on the certified election results, though not yet receiving formal certificate of elections documents, including new members of the Columbus County Board of Commissioners and Board of Elections.
This is a developing story. Look for updates here as events warrant, a full wrap-up in the next Tabor-Loris Tribune in print and online.