HICKORY, N.C. — A runoff race for the Republican nomination for district attorney in the North Carolina foothills has the challenger accusing the incumbent of sexually harassing an employee, and the incumbent saying the challenger was part of an illegal pyramid scheme.
And hanging above it all is how District Attorney Jay Gaither handled the highest-profile case in his 12 years in office — a woman sentenced to up to 18 years in prison for killing her 10-year-old stepdaughter in Hickory.
Morganton lawyer David Learner won the Republican primary in May with 39.4 percent of the vote, but ended up in a runoff with Gaither by 147 votes. Gaither got 31.1 percent.
The winner of Tuesday's runoff is almost guaranteed to be the next district attorney because there are no Democrats running in the district that includes Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties.
Learner said the sentence for Elisa Baker in the 2010 death of her stepdaughter Zahra is a prime example of "soft plea bargains," according to The Charlotte Observer (http://bit.ly/Walz3N).
Gaither said he did the best with the evidence he had.
Gaither's main attack against Learner involves Hi-Tech Marketing, a multilevel sales company that was shut down last year by the Federal Trade Commission, which called it a pyramid scheme.
Learner said the company appeared to be legitimate when he got involved five years ago, and he was only with it for eight months.
But much of the attention in the last weeks of the runoff has surrounded a federal sexual harassment complaint against Gaither filed by an assistant prosecutor who worked with him. She said she had to resign because Gaither was constantly bothering her, rubbing his hands on her thigh and sending her inappropriate texts.
Gaither has called the accusations a smear attack meant for retaliation after he fired the assistant prosecutor for having an affair with a married defense attorney.
He denied the allegations when speaking to the newspaper, but wouldn't elaborate.
"It's calculated to limit my ability to defend against the accusations. I have to focus on the campaign. I'm not going to say any more about it," Gaither said.
Learner said Gaither owes the voters answers, not vague denials. And the lawyer for the woman who filed the harassment claim said Gaither's denials are the lies.
"Mr. Gaither's comments are laughable," attorney, John Buric said. "His campaign to tarnish the reputation of his victim is shameful and shows the level to which he will stoop to save his power."
Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com