Politics & Government

Laura Riddick disdained ‘power and perks.’ Now she’s accused of abusing her elected office.

She claimed to be a good financial steward of a little-known government office.

But auditors found that it lacked the basic safeguards needed to monitor cash.

She scolded her fellow registers of deeds for accepting perks from contractors.

But prosecutors believe that, at the same time, she was pocketing money from her own office.

Now friends and work associates of Laura Riddick are trying to square the former Wake County register of deeds’ longtime reputation with the news that Riddick is charged with embezzling $926,000 of the $2.3 million that went missing from an office she ran for 20 years.

Even after reports put Riddick at the center of the scandal but before she was charged in December, some friends thought investigators might clear her of wrongdoing. Donna Williams, former leader of the Wake County Republican Party, was one of them.

Former Wake County Republican Party Chairwoman Donna Williams Courtesy of Donna Williams

Williams said she texted Riddick last year to let her know she was praying for her.

“I know her as a very caring, concerned-about-others kind of person. I find it really hard to believe what I’m reading in the paper. I find it really hard to believe,” Williams told a reporter a day before Riddick was charged. “It floors me. I hope it’s not true.”

Over 20 years, Riddick built a sterling image and comfortable lifestyle as the seemingly steady leader of an obscure agency. Now she faces six felony counts of embezzlement. And office emails obtained by The News & Observer through a public records request show an anxious elected official who relied on Matthew Eisley, her husband who formerly worked as an N&O editor and reporter, for emotional and professional support.

A customer-friendly office

Former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, in black dress at right, who resigned in March 2017, and her husband Matthew Eisley, third from left in back row, pose in the Register of Deeds office in the Wake County Justice Center in October 2014 when gay marriage was legalized in North Carolina and dozens of couples were married. Riddick was charged on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 with embezzling more than $900,000. Three other former employees of the office were also indicted in the case involving $2.3 million missing from the Wake County Register of Deeds office. Chuck Liddy 2014 News & Observer file photo

Voters elected Riddick, a Republican, to office in 1996 when she was 29 and she soon gained recognition for modernizing the registry by digitizing records, allowing the public to search and upload records online.

The Register of Deeds office is each county’s center for processing many legal transactions. The office records real estate deals, legal documents and maps, issues marriage licenses, certifies documents and administers notary-public oaths.

Though deeds offices are part of county governments, they often operate autonomously because they’re run by an elected official. Registers are elected every four years, often in low-budget campaigns that don’t garner much attention.

Before running for office, Riddick had worked with registers across the state as supervisor of local records for the state Division of Archives. A New Jersey native, Riddick grew up in Wake County and worked in her mother’s real estate office and attended sale closings. She graduated from Meredith College in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in history, and then earned a master’s degree in archival management from N.C. State in 1990.

In her first campaign, Riddick beat Wake’s incumbent register on the promise she’d foster a new customer-service-oriented culture and introduce new technology. And regular customers say Riddick accomplished many of her goals.

Beth Voltz, a Raleigh-based real estate attorney, remembers the tedium involved with finding and submitting documents at the deeds office in the mid-1990s.

“If I walked in with a deed to record, you’d hand it to [the clerk], they’d write it in the book and you’d get a receipt,” Voltz said. “It would take them a week to 10 days to digitize that.”

Riddick was quick to adopt technology that quickly uploads records, Voltz said. “Now, it’s instantaneous,” she said. “These days, I can go record something and it’s back online for everyone to see before I get back to my office.”

In 2008, Riddick won an award from the National Association of Counties for launching technology allowing mortgage lenders to submit paperwork online.

Respected across the aisle

Riddick’s responsiveness and friendly demeanor helped her earn respect from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Gene Davis, another Raleigh-based real estate attorney, said Riddick did an “extraordinary job” of streamlining the record-search process. Davis, former vice chairman for the Wake County Democratic Party, said she made the Wake deeds website one of the most user-friendly in North Carolina.

“Every document recorded at the Wake County Register of Deeds since 1785 is available online,” Davis said. He added that Riddick would often go out of her way to help customers who needed it.

“Sometimes we’d be running late and get down there [as it was closing] and they would always slip us in and be kind and helpful,” he said.

Brian Fitzsimmons, former chairman of the Wake Democrats, recalled that Riddick kept the deeds office open after 5 p.m. after a judge lifted North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban in 2014. Her office also modified hundreds of marriage documents by hand to correct the longstanding “husband-wife” setup.

“I think it’s safe to say that we were all surprised,” Fitzsimmons said, referring to Democrats who heard about Riddick helping same-sex couples. Some Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage thought GOP officials should abstain from those proceedings.

“It’s those actions of humanity that make this [news of embezzlement charges] all the more difficult to hear,” Fitzsimmons said.

Big house, nice salary

The house of former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, seen on Dec. 12, 2017. She was indicted on six counts of embezzlement in December. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Riddick’s role as an elected leader with a six-figure salary is part of the reason former acquaintances are baffled by the news of her indictment.

Riddick started her career as the register at an annual salary of $67,575 and reached six figures by 2006. In her final year as register, she made $143,267. Salaries for constitutional officers such as the register of deeds and the sheriff are set by the county commissioners as part of the annual budget process.

During her time as register, she donated more than $23,000 to Republican candidates and causes.

“I thought she was kind of on top of the world. I don’t understand it,” said John Odom, a Republican and former Raleigh council member who often ran into Riddick at local government events.

riddickandeisley PORTRAIT
Former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, who resigned in March 2017, and her husband Matthew Eisley at the Wake County Justice Center in October 2014 when gay marriage was legalized in North Carolina and dozens of couples were married. Riddick was charged on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 with embezzling more than $900,000. Three other former employees of the office were also indicted in the case involving $2.3 million missing from the Wake County Register of Deeds office. Chuck Liddy 2014 News & Observer file photo

Riddick, now 51, married Eisley, now 49, in September 2005. She had divorced J. Lanier Riddick III, who she married in 1990, the month prior. Riddick and Eisley, an N&O employee from 1992 to 2010, worked just a couple of blocks from each other in downtown Raleigh and Eisley wrote about Riddick several times during his time as a reporter.

After leaving The N&O, Eisley worked as manager of strategic communication with Raleigh law firm Smith Anderson until last year.

In January 2017, UNC President Margaret Spellings announced that Eisley had been hired as the new vice president for communications for the UNC System office. His annual salary would’ve been $175,000.

But four days before Eisley was scheduled to start, he “informed our office on February 23 that he was not going to be accepting the position,” said Josh Ellis, UNC System spokesman. Earlier that month, on Feb. 2, county leaders met with Riddick and launched a probe of the Register of Deeds office. On Feb. 10, Riddick told a co-worker that the medication she took for a heart problem had stopped working and she was having a “very hard time,” email records show. “I am counting down the days to my surgery in hope of some relief from the chronic symptoms.”

The couple live in a 4,400-square-foot house near Crabtree Valley Mall that tax assessors last year valued at $730,000. They bought it for $645,500 in 2005 and paid it off in April 2011, according to records provided by the Wake deeds office. Also in 2011, Eisley reported $3,000 in cash missing after someone broke into their house, according to an incident report filed by police.

Riddick in 2013 drove a 2013 Mercedes, according to a Raleigh Police Department accident report.

Records obtained by The N&O show that, starting in 2007, Eisley inherited between $225,000 and $250,000 from the estate of Wesley Reese of Birmingham, Alabama – a relative.

Ballard Everett, Riddick’s campaign consultant in the 1990s, said he hopes the charges aren’t true. Riddick relished her job, he said.

“She had a beautiful home, but with what she and Matthew (Eisley) were making, that’s certainly not out of the ordinary,” he said. “It puzzles me.”

Serving ‘ably’

Even Lorrin Freeman, the district attorney whose investigation led to embezzlement charges for Riddick, offered public praise for her as recently as April 2015. When Freeman became D.A. that January, she took over an investigation into a breach of Riddick’s work email.

Prosecutors ultimately charged a former deeds computer system administrator, Nilesh Tailor, with two misdemeanors for hacking into Riddick’s email and monitoring it for nearly two years. Tailor had no prior criminal record and he never seemed to use the information.

“As you know, Laura Riddick has served this county for many years very ably, and depends very much on being able to trust her staff,” Freeman said in 2015.

That hacking investigation yielded no suggestion of embezzlement in the office, Freeman said in a recent interview. Reflecting on those 2015 comments, Freeman, who served as Wake County’s clerk of court until 2014, said she and Riddick shared many of the same customers.

For example, “people who obtained property bonds to get out of jail: that’s a process that’s initiated with a deed of trust with a Clerk of Court listed as the trustee, and that’s filed in the Register of Deeds office,” Freeman said. “So we had some interaction among those kinds of issues, professionally.”

Riddick wanted Freeman to administer her oath at her swearing-in ceremony in December 2016, email records show. A Nov. 7, 2016, email shows Riddick emailing a UNC professor to ask for his legal opinion.

“My good friend is our former Wake County Clerk of Court and she’s now our Wake District Attorney,” Riddick wrote.

“I'm not sure if a former Clerk of Court or a District Attorney qualifies to administer an oath but I’m sure you know the answer to this question! She may also be a notary, which I can check if she’s unable to administer the oath as a former COC or DA.”

Freeman didn’t administer Riddick’s oath because she said she didn’t have the authority. In the recent interview, she described her relationship with Riddick as professional and friendly – but not personal.

“Laura and I certainly had a collaborative working relationship. Like anybody who I worked with, and we didn’t work in the same offices or departments, we had a friendly relationship,” Freeman said. “I would like to think I have that kind of relationship with the judges, and the clerk and the sheriff and others I work with. If the question is did we socialize outside the office, no we did not.”

She added: “My interactions with Ms. Riddick would’ve never led me to believe or assume there was irregular behavior or mismanagement in that office.”

‘We assiduously follow the law’

bog combo
From left, former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick and former deeds employees Troy Ellis, Veronica Gearon and Murray Parker. All were indicted on embezzlement charges in December. CCBI

Even though Riddick ran unopposed in four of the six election campaigns, she found ways to publicize her views on ethical government practices.

A 2011 opinion column she wrote in the Winston-Salem Journal details her “principled professional disagreement” with the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds. She decried the organization for asking vendors to sponsor an event that featured more social events than business meetings.

“The association’s leaders, naturally enjoying their power and their perks, have succumbed to the common human temptation to take whatever they can in the absence of strict laws or significant public scrutiny,” she wrote in the column, still available on the Wake deeds website.

It’s wrong for registers to accept gifts or campaign contributions from vendors, Riddick wrote.

“That’s why in 15 years as Wake County’s register, I’ve never asked vendors for conference sponsorships or accepted campaign contributions from them,” she wrote.

In 2014, she wrote another op-ed – this time in The N&O – defending her decision to keep the deeds office open late to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Riddick, who had faced criticism for keeping her office open after normal business hours, listed several principles her office operates by, from providing “excellent customer service” to treating all residents with respect.

“Everything we do in our office flows from these principles: We assiduously follow the law,” Riddick wrote.

While courts will ultimately decide whether Riddick and three others accused of embezzlement broke laws, county officials have already determined that the deeds office lacked the basic accounting practices needed to effectively monitor cash.

Clerks who accepted cash from customers applying for marriage certificates or other documents weren’t required to count the money in their drawers before lumping it in with money collected by other clerks, according to Charles Gilliam, the new Wake register.

The carelessness would’ve been blatantly obvious to an auditor, Gilliam told The N&O in August. State law enables county finance officers to audit deeds offices but, until last February, no county official had inspected the registry in at least 10 years.

Meeting to ‘ease her burdens’

Former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, lower right, enters the Wake County Detention Center with her husband, Matthew Eisley, right, and her attorney Joe Zeszotarski, left, as she turned herself in to law enforcement officers in Raleigh, N.C., on Dec. 13, 2017. Riddick has been accused of embezzling more than $900,000 from the office she presided over for two decades. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Had someone with the county talked to registry employees, they might’ve heard about some unusual practices.

Email records show that Eisley, who’s not accused of any wrongdoing, sometimes emailed registry employees directly to talk about Riddick. While Eisley’s firm was hired by the county in 2015 to advocate for county interests at the legislature, records show Eisley emailed Riddick not only to offer updates on state politics but also tips for managing deeds office operations in downtown Raleigh.

On Oct. 1, 2015, for instance, Eisley emailed three staffers to ask them to meet with him, saying he was concerned about Riddick’s “high stress level.”

“I need to come see you guys this morning regarding Laura,” he wrote. “I am very concerned about her high stress level as she heads into the looming election filing period.”

The email continues: “I would like for the four of us to meet at the Registry asap to discuss what we can all do — including me — to ease her burdens.”

Email records show Eisley’s email didn’t sit well with Veronica Gearon, a recording unit supervisor. Minutes later, she forwarded the email to two other staffers.

“OMG - I have to meet with him at 9am in Matts office — the insanity continues,” Gearon’s email reads. She asked the two other staffers if she could use them as references on her resume, which she said she planned to put together the following weekend.

“She thinks she is stressed — please, give me a break,” Gearon wrote.

Gearon and Riddick were two of four former registry employees charged with embezzlement Dec. 12. Former employees Murray Parker and Troy Ellis are also charged. Gearon, who was fired Dec. 7, stands accused of embezzling $80,950 from 2011 to 2016.

Adding ‘stress for Laura’

In November 2015, records show Eisley emailed a deeds office employee who planned to leave the office for another job. The employee was Matthew Wagner, the deputy register of deeds and one of the three people who Eisley emailed in October about Riddick’s stress.

Eisley wrote that he believed Wagner was making the “right decision,” but wrote that he was “disappointed” by the timing of it.

“Coming the week of Laura’s birthday, and soon before the election candidate filing period, while the Registry is dealing with a host of challenges, and with the possibility that I could soon be facing surgery, your announcement and departure inevitably will add stress for Laura that she did not need right now,” his email says.

Eisley’s email stated that he didn’t wish for Wagner to change plans. “But I hope you will not mind my saying honestly that I wish you had waited until the new year, once the election landscape was clear, to make your move and announce your intentions,” his email reads.

“I’m afraid that the timing of your decision will have an unintended but negative effect on Laura during an already stressful time, which I can’t help but wish you had considered more fully before breaking the news to her,” he wrote. “Regardless of this situation, however, I have enjoyed getting to know you.”

Riddick had run unopposed in the prior two elections – 2008 and 2012 – and would go on to run unopposed again in 2016.

‘I’m getting worried

After Wagner’s departure in late 2015, Riddick hired Darryl Black as deputy register of deeds in March 2016.

Darryl Black 2001 News & Observer file photo

Black, an industrial engineer with an auditing background, said he soon requested reports on basic management measures such as employee workloads and error rates in document filings. He’s now suing Riddick, claiming in his lawsuit that she forced him to resign on Feb. 10, 2017, “because she did not want him to uncover embezzlement at the office.”

On April 25, 2016, Riddick emailed Eisley about Black with the subject line “Have you spoken with Darryl yet?”

Riddick wrote that Black was “going down a path that we have not discussed. If you have not spoken with him please let me know.”

Eisley responded: “Yes. I think you should tell [him] that he’s not to discuss office business with any legislators or legislative staff without your prior approval.”

On Oct. 4, 2016, Riddick forwarded Eisley an email she had received from Black. A fellow county employee had asked Black to meet sometime in November, and Black asked Riddick how he should respond to the employee.

Black’s lawsuit claims that she had told him to look for a new job that September.

“Is it me or does it seem that he thinks he’ll be here?? Now I’m getting worried!” Riddick wrote to Eisley. Eisley responded: “Well you’ve already told him he can stay through, when, the end of the year? ... He will try to squeeze things in at the very end.”

On Feb. 1, 2017, Eisley emailed Black a link to a job opening at the NC Department of Public Instruction. “Would this job interest you?” he said.

The county discovered some of the emails between Eisley and registry staff in response to a records request, Wake spokeswoman Dara Demi told The N&O in October. The emails “do not reflect the manner in which the county conducts business or manages its employees,” she wrote in an email.

A frequent presence

It’s unclear what “path” Riddick was referring to, why Eisley thought she was stressed, how frequently he contacted deeds employees and whether he influenced daily operations of the deeds office. The N&O emailed a list of questions for the couple to Eisley, but neither Eisley nor Riddick has responded with comment to those questions.

The N&O also called Jim Hartmann, the former county manager, several times seeking comment but was unable to reach him.

It’s clear that Eisley helped Riddick through stressful times at Wake’s deeds office as well as through the investigation into the missing money.

When Hartmann and county attorney Scott Warren met with Riddick on Feb. 2 to say they wanted to start the internal probe, Eisley was there. Riddick had asked if he could accompany her, according to county spokeswoman Kerry McComber.

When Riddick was ready to announce her resignation in March, it was Eisley who emailed her statement to Warren. The statement cited a “recently diagnosed heart condition” as her reason for resigning and the email included specific instructions for Warren: “...(P)rovide statement *upon press inquiry* (no news release), beginning at noon on Friday, March 31, 2017.”

And on Dec. 13, when the time came for Riddick to turn herself in to authorities, it was Eisley who walked her into the Wake County Detention Center.

He kissed her on the cheek before she was ushered off to have a mugshot made. Afterward, when it was over and Riddick was putting on her coat, she handed Eisley papers to carry on their way out.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht