RALEIGH — Federal authorities are investigating whether the former commissioner of the state Division of Motor Vehicles illegally wiretapped the phone calls of agency employees.
George Tatum, who resigned in 2007 amid a corruption scandal, had a special telephone in his office that allowed him to listen in on the calls of his subordinates without their knowledge, according to current DMV officials. Greg Lockamy, who retired unexpectedly last year after serving as the agency's internal affairs director, also had a phone set up for secret eavesdropping.
State law forbids intercepting phone calls without a warrant unless at least one person in the conversation knows the monitoring is taking place.
Tatum, now the director of emergency management at Fayetteville State University, did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week.
Current DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson said any improper monitoring of employee phone calls ended before he took over last year. Robertson confirmed, however, that FBI agents interviewed him about wiretapping that might have occurred at DMV prior to his arrival.
Other DMV officials had also been interviewed, he said. He declined to divulge details about what questions the federal agents asked.
"It's fairly common knowledge over here there were allegations about telephone eavesdropping," Robertson said.
Brent Parrish, a telephone technician at DMV, was subpoenaed to appear before the federal grand jury hearing evidence in a wide-ranging investigation of former Gov. Mike Easley. Parrish said Tuesday he testified Sept. 16 about the special features installed on Tatum's phone.
Parrish said he had no direct knowledge of whose calls Tatum might have listened to or why.
"I don't have any evidence he ever used it," Parrish said. "But I did have suspicions, and that's what I told the grand jury."
He declined to give reasons for those suspicions or say what further testimony he provided.
Link to NCSU
Tatum, 57, might be of interest to the federal prosecutors investigating Easley because he dismissed a serious violation against an auto inspection station owned by McQueen Campbell, who resigned as a N.C. State University trustee last year. Campbell quit amid questions about his role in hiring the governor's wife for a high-paying job at the university.
Campbell, a pilot, was subpoenaed before the State Board of Elections in October to testify about flights provided to Easley in his private plane, and repairs he paid for at the governor's house.
Tatum, a former Cumberland County register of deeds and a close associate of former Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, was appointed to lead DMV by Easley in 2003. Tatum was forced to resign four years later after The News & Observer reported that he helped a friend get a vintage truck title for a vehicle that was actually a replica. The fraudulent move can save owners hundreds of dollars in taxes and boost potential resale value.
Tatum was seen in August entering the federal courthouse in Raleigh while the grand jury was in session, though it is not clear whether he testified.
Lockamy, 50, retired from the DMV June 1 and now works for the Johnston County Sheriff's Office. As DMV's former assistant director for professional standards, he declined to comment on whether he eavesdropped on employee calls. He also declined to say whether he had been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.
Parrish, the technician, said the DMV phone system allows managers supervising the agency's call center to monitor conversations with the public. Those calling the DMV with questions about license renewal and other issues hear a recorded disclaimer informing them their calls might be monitored for quality assurance.
Parrish said Tatum and Lockamy also had the function installed on their phones, allowing them to listen in on any phone line at DMV headquarters, including those of other high-ranking administrators.
The technician said the function allowed Tatum to program his phone so that a "busy light" would indicate when particular lines were in use. The commissioner could then pick up his phone and press a button to listen to the call, with his handset automatically muted. Those on the line would have no indication their call was being monitored.
After Tatum left in 2007, Easley appointed former Superior Court Judge William Gore to lead the DMV. After Gore had been in office about a week, Parrish said, Gore called to ask about the special buttons on his phone. Gore immediately ordered that the feature be deactivated.
'I know it's a felony'
Gore said Wednesday he wanted the monitoring capabilities removed from his phone because he had no intention of listening to other people's conversations.
"Having been a judge and lawyer, I didn't want to be in the situation where the phone in my office was being used for some illegal or inappropriate purpose," Gore said.
Robertson, the current DMV commissioner, said only the supervisor for the agency's call center now has a phone set up for listening in on those she supervises. No other phones, including his, are set up to monitor other extensions.
"It ain't happening anymore," said Robertson, who formerly served as an agent at the State Bureau of Investigation and said he is well acquainted with the penalties for wiretapping without a warrant. "I know what the law is. I know it's a felony. And, honestly, some of the past things they used this system for were probably wrong."
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