COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – In the midst of unprecedented confusion in Columbus County over who should be serving as sheriff, a number of people who work at the sheriff’s office have been terminated from their job.
While North Carolina law generally gives sheriffs broad latitude to hire and fire at will, pending legal challenges to Jody Greene’s claim to the sheriff’s seat bring the recent firings under scrutiny.
WECT has learned at least one of the employees fired from his job with the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is being represented by an attorney in connection to his questionable termination.
According to personnel records from the Columbus County Human Resources Department, as of February 21, Jody Greene had fired two employees and demoted four others since taking over as acting sheriff on December 3. We are told at least one other deputy was essentially forced to resign this week. Paperwork detailing that resignation was not yet available from the county.
While deputies in North Carolina serve at the pleasure of the sheriff, the State Board of Elections and the North Carolina Attorney General’s office have said Greene should not have been sworn in as sheriff on December 3 because he has not yet been given a certificate of election. There are still pending challenges to the November election results, and until those challenges are resolved, state officials said incumbent Lewis Hatcher should still be serving as sheriff.
Bobby Worley, who had been with the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office for about 25 years and served as Hatcher’s second-in-command, was the most high-profile termination under Greene. Greene fired Worley on February 8, just hours before a court hearing on a settlement agreement detailing who would run the department until elections officials could resolve the pending elections protests. Worley is now being represented by an attorney following his abrupt termination under these questionable circumstances.
Lawyers for Greene and Hatcher agreed that Greene would step aside from running the day to day operations of the department effective February 13, but family members of a deputy forced to resign since that time say Greene has continued to call the shots behind the scenes. The exact terms of the settlement agreement between Greene and Hatcher were never made public, making it difficult to ascertain what Greene should or should not be doing until the elections protests are settled.
“In the past three months I have…encountered some ‘not so amazing’ individuals who lack basic human skills, such as ethics, morals, equality, and the basic ability to treat others with respect…. [P]aranoia leading to the mistreatment of employees is beyond ridiculous,” former Deputy Joshua Harris wrote on social media Monday, the day he was allegedly forced out of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. He indicated he lost his job for respectfully declining an invitation to attend an after-hours event with other members of the sheriff’s office.
Greene says Harris was not fired and declined to comment on questions surrounding other terminations.
Chris Batten, the former long-time sheriff of Columbus County who served immediately before Hatcher, indicated he is uneasy with the recent terminations.
“In my opinion, we have not had a Sheriff since December 3, 2018. If [Greene] was never certified, he doesn’t technically hold the office of Sheriff. Sheriff Hatcher did not get adequate votes to win an election and therefore he is not technically our Sheriff after December 3…. I was always after each of my three elections, certified by the board of election before being sworn. The citizens of Columbus County and just as importantly the officers and staff deserve for this issue to be resolved as quickly as possible. Officers have enough stress in their lives every day when they put on their uniforms. As former Sheriff, I encourage the Boards of Elections whether at the local or state level to put an end to this issue so we can all move forward,” the retired Sheriff Batten told WECT.
Evidentiary hearing set for Wednesday
The Columbus County Board of Elections will hold an evidentiary hearing Wednesday, stemming from a protest filed by voter Gloria Smith. The protest elections officials will consider includes Smith’s concerns that Greene did not live in Columbus County for the year prior to the election as required by law, and was therefore not qualified to run for the office.
Separately, the State Board of Elections is investigating absentee ballot irregularities in the Columbus County general election. Greene, a Republican, obtained 37 more votes than incumbent Sheriff Lewis Hatcher, a Democrat. But an unusually high percentage of requested absentee ballots were never returned.
Of the 557 requested ballots, 181 disappeared before making their way back to the board of elections. Most of the missing ballots were mailed to African American Democrats according to elections records.
State Board of Elections workers say there is “factual overlap” in the irregularities that occurred in the Columbus County sheriff’s election and the NC-9 Congressional race. State elections officials recently called for a new election in the NC-9 race because of overwhelming evidence of elections fraud in Bladen County.
McCrae Dowless, who worked on Congressional candidate Mark Harris’s campaign, has been indicted for absentee ballot tampering in that race, and accused of throwing away ballots that did not favor Harris. WECT uncovered Dowless also worked for Jody Greene’s campaign in Columbus County.
In December, when questioned about Dowless’s work for his campaign, Greene told us Dowless only brought in around 65 ballots for him, and he was actually disappointed in Dowless’s and Red Dome Group’s lackluster performance.
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