RV gives board doubt about Columbus sheriff candidate’s residency
The Columbus County Board of Elections decided Thursday night that the Republican candidate for sheriff, Jody Greene, did not meet the state’s residency requirement.
The finding capped an unconventional and often testy two-day hearing that featured a field trip to the farm in Cerro Gordo where Greene said he and his wife have been living for years in an RV.
Before the board’s chairwoman could officially bring the hearing to a close, a man in the audience yelled “Shame, shame, shame on y’all” and sheriff’s deputies rushed to clear the courtroom.
The board’s vote on the residency requirement was 3-2, split along party lines, with Democrats in the majority.
The vote is hardly the end of the story. The North Carolina State Board of Elections has already decided to review the matter, and the sheriff’s candidates could appeal that board’s decision in the courts. The conflict has come before a judge once already.
The sheriff’s office has been without a clear and undisputed leader since November. Greene was sworn into office, but the state board said that was improper because the election’s outcome hasn’t been resolved. As part of a legal settlement, the candidates have agreed that, for now, neither will oversee the day-to-day activities of the sheriff’s office.
The race for sheriff of Columbus County was contentious even before Election Day, when an unofficial tally showed Greene with a lead of fewer than 40 votes out of more than 18,000. The incumbent sheriff, Lewis Hatcher, is African American and a Democrat; Greene is white.
The divide in the courtroom this week was stark. On one side sat mostly white supporters of Greene, wearing green shirts or bracelets. The other side of the room sat mostly African-American people. Hatcher’s attorney was African American. Greene’s attorneys were white.
This week’s hearing stemmed from an election protest lodged by Gloria Smith, the vice-chair of the county’s Democratic Party. She was one of four African-American voters to file a protest related to the race with the county board of elections in the days following the election.
The protests raised a wide array of issues. Some allegations related to problems on Election Day, such as longtime voters being told they weren’t registered and a former Republican chairman working as a poll worker. Another complaint related to Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative whose work for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris is the subject of state and federal investigations. Dowless also worked for Greene, through the consulting firm Red Dome Group.
Each of the protests was dismissed, but two were appealed to the State Board of Elections. The state board recently ordered county officials to hold a new hearing about Smith’s allegations, including questions about whether Greene met residency requirements.
Although the board heard testimony on several issues this week, the residency issue overshadowed the rest. The question before county board members was not as simple as where Greene lived in November 2017, a year before the election, the board’s attorney Michael Crowell told them. Board members had to identify Greene’s “domicile,” where he intends to live for the long haul, and pinpoint the date that intention came to be manifest in his actions.
In perhaps a harbinger of debates to come, Greene’s attorneys questioned the constitutionality of the whole enterprise. “We believe that the board even considering the one-year requirement, in and of itself, is erroneous, and also violates the constitution,” said Philip Isley, though he conceded it was beyond the board’s power to declare a law unconstitutional.
Attorneys for Smith — Oscar Blanks, Ralph Frasier and Irving Joyner — also contested parts of Crowell’s legal interpretation. Nonetheless, they put on their evidence, which included testimony from both Smith and Hatcher that they had driven out to the property Greene had listed as his home on campaign paperwork and were unable to see any buildings where a person might live.
Lawyers established that tax records show no taxable structures on the property, no permits had been pulled for improvements and Greene indicated in an application for a program that lowers taxes on agricultural land that no one lived there.
The evidence that board members appeared to find most persuasive came from South Carolina DMV records: the RV has a South Carolina title and plates.
Those records were uncovered via subpoena as part of a federal lawsuit that also pertains to Greene’s residency. The case was filed by Calvin Norton, an African-American activist who previously ran for Columbus County sheriff and has a history of making civil rights claims in court without an attorney.
The second day of testimony began with a dramatic proposal: Would the board like to go see the Cerro Gordo farm where Greene lives?
Despite protests from Smith’s attorneys, board members said yes. The audience could come along because the visit was part of a public meeting.
Scuffles immediately broke out in the hallway outside the courtroom. Sheriff’s deputies physically separated people and threatened at least one person with arrest. Some African Americans who attended the hearing debated whether it was safe to go along. One of Greene’s neighbors rushed down the stairs after saying he would bar the gate.
The people who made the 20-minute trip to Cerro Gordo were mostly Greene supporters, board members, lawyers and reporters. Under the watch of several sheriff’s deputies, they inspected the grounds, including the outside of a barn, a camper and a large RV that opens onto a patio. Nearby is a flat area marked by stakes – the footprint of his future home, Greene said in later testimony.
Among the evidence Greene’s attorneys presented were power bills, credit card bills, property tax bills, tax bills for vehicles and jury summonses, all of which had been sent to the Cerro Gordo address where Greene said he and his wife live. The couple also own a house in North Myrtle Beach, which Greene said they bought and fixed up as an investment, and Greene’s wife, Angie, owns a house in Lumberton.
Board members heard from the man who grows beans and corn on part of Greene’s Cerro Gordo property, and attorneys submitted more than 40 affidavits from people who said they live nearby.
The trip to Cerro Gordo appeared to stick with board members more than the reams of paperwork submitted by the lawyers. Their reaction to seeing the RV dominated the deliberations.
Republican board member Bonnie Inman commented on how much work had gone into creating a flat site for Greene’s future home. “He has been working on this for a while,” she said. “No doubt in my mind he plans to live there the rest of his life.”
JoAnn Garrell, the board’s other GOP member, said she understands Greene’s decisions on a personal level. “I have lived in an RV, and I chose to live in an RV, and I was content,” she said. “It insults me when somebody says that’s not your home.”
Chairwoman Bonita Blakney, however, couldn’t understand why someone would choose to live in an RV when they also own two homes. “I find it difficult to believe that if you have a sturdy house anywhere that you would live in a camper,” she said.
Brenda Ebron, another Democratic member, said she is aware from watching HGTV that homes can be staged to make it look like someone lives there.
Ebron seemed undecided until she heard from Katherine Horne, also a Democrat, who doubted the Greenes spent much time in Cerro Gordo in November and December 2017 based on utility bills that were more than twice as high near the date of the election.
Horne explained that she thought of the idea of a domicile as “home sweet home” and she couldn’t reconcile some of Greene’s decisions about how he maintained the Cerro Gordo property with that idea. She took issue with his uncovered well, his choice not to hook up to county water service though he had the option, his statement that he could dump graywater anywhere on the property and his decision not to install a septic tank.
“I’ve been camping,” she said. “In summertime, it’s going to smell. A 110-gallon tank (for human waste) and he doesn’t pour it out but once a month?”
In the audience were members of the NAACP from nearby counties that have also recently been scrutinized for election irregularities. They said they viewed the hearing as part of a long history of stolen elections in the southeastern part of the state.
“It’s obvious that this is just a setup,” said Tyrone Watson, president of the NAACP’s Robeson County chapter. “This is a coverup for him to have the sheriff’s seat, and it just shows how far they’re willing to go to stay in control, and it’s a shame.”
“Regardless of how it comes out, everybody’s not going to be satisfied,” he said.
On that point, Watson is an agreement with Doug Smith, the white man who yelled “shame on you” at the board after their vote on Greene’s residency.
Smith said that the FBI investigation that led to the arrest of politicians, a police chief and a judge in the 1980s didn’t root out corruption in Columbus County and that party powerbrokers now used African Americans as a front to keep themselves in power.
“If they unseat Jody,” Smith said, “there’s going to be trouble in this county.”