Politics & Government

Who is the rightful sheriff of Columbus County? Answer could come in court

Longtime friends of Jody Greene say “he’s the man for this county”

Daniel Thomas Ford and Lacy Eugene Batten say the supporters of Lewis Hatcher need to accept that Jody Greene won the election for Columbus County sheriff.
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Daniel Thomas Ford and Lacy Eugene Batten say the supporters of Lewis Hatcher need to accept that Jody Greene won the election for Columbus County sheriff.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, Lewis Hatcher asked a judge to force Columbus County officials to acknowledge that he is the county’s rightful sheriff, not the man serving in that position.

Hatcher was appointed to the office in 2014 and was elected sheriff by a wide margin later that year. In November’s election, he faced S. Jody Greene in a tight race. Unofficial results show Greene, the Republican candidate, leading by fewer than 40 votes.

The race has yet to be certified, and the state board of elections has been investigating.

Campaign finance documents show that Greene hired Red Dome, the political consulting firm that would later come under scrutiny in an investigation into mail-in ballot irregularities in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. The political operative named by the state elections board as a “person of interest,” L. McCrae Dowless, was working for Red Dome in Columbus County, as well as in Bladen and Robeson counties, where the state’s investigation has been most intensely focused.

In Friday’s court filing, Hatcher’s attorney, Oscar M. Blanks III, argued that Greene “is a Usurper of authority and is unlawfully holding the Office of Sheriff of Columbus County, thus placing the citizens in grave risk.”

He outlined several reasons for his conclusion. The first is that several voters protested the election outcome and appealed the county election board’s decision to dismiss their complaints to the state elections board. No hearing date has yet been set, and the state board ordered the county board to delay making the election results official in the meantime.

Even though no formal “certificate of election” has been issued, Greene was sworn into office.

Although Judge Ashley Gore administered the oath of office for Greene, state Rep. Brendan Jones signed the oath-of-office document. Blanks argued that Greene’s swearing-in is void since Jones did not administer the oath but attested to it.

Efforts to contact Greene by phone and email Friday evening were unsuccessful. A phone message for Hatcher was not returned. Neither candidate has responded to past interview requests from The News & Observer.

Since Greene has not officially won the election, he should not be serving as sheriff, Blanks argued. He cited a state laws that says “All officers shall continue their respective offices until their successors are elected or appointed, and duly qualified.”

“Defendant Greene’s refusal to step aside places Columbus County in legal jeopardy in that all arrests and searches are unlawful and illegal subjecting Columbus County to potential civil unrest and increasing civil liability,” Blanks wrote.

The county commissioners and county manager are to blame, Blanks argued, for not backing Hatcher up.

One more reason Greene can’t be sheriff, according to Blanks: He hasn’t proven he lives in Columbus County. Some of the protests pending before the state elections board raise that question, citing property records showing Greene’s homes in Robeson County and in Horry County, South Carolina.

Property records also show that Greene owns land in Columbus County, but no residential buildings on that land. His wife, Angie Greene, earlier told The News & Observer that the couple lives in the county, but she declined to say where, citing security concerns. Neighbors said they live in a travel trailer.

In the lawsuit, Hatcher asked the court to force county officials to recognize him as sheriff.

He also asked for attorneys’ fees and monetary damages. “The loss of power and prestige that comes with the Office of Sheriff, financial loss due to loss of salary, loss of benefits such as insurance, and retirement time accrual are just but a few damages to date,” the lawsuit said.

On Friday evening, no court hearing had been set.

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Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.