Chris Medlin refused to deny creating a website that defamed his father’s political opponent, while local and state authorities say there are currently no indications of a campaign violation or any legal issues.
SURF CITY — The son of Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin refused to deny any involvement in the creation of a mock website that emerged early last week disparaging a city councilman who is challenging Medlin for the mayor’s seat in November.
The website attacked the political and personal reputation of Councilman Jeremy Shugarts.
Before the website was removed sometime on the morning of August 20, a subscription link sent a confirmation message from an email address associated with Medlin’s business, the same email that appears on a Pender County document of elected officials posted in February.
On Tuesday afternoon, Chris Medlin was reached by phone at East Coast Sports, which he runs with his father. When asked repeatedly if he created the website himself, the younger Medlin answered each time, “No comment.”
Links to an email address
Chris Medlin is also the treasurer for the Committee to Elect Doug Medlin, according to an election document submitted to Onslow County. Because the mayor lives in a portion of Surf City that lies north of the Pender County line, he was required to submit campaign paperwork to Onslow County.
An online search of the email address associated with the website — firstname.lastname@example.org — showed various referrals to East Coast Sports and, often, Chris Medlin. These included a post published on a Topsail fishing blog two weeks ago that advertises the charter services of “Capt. Chris Medlin,” as well as a short bio of the company’s fishing supplies and charter services on Pender County’s tourism website.
Additionally, information beneath a 2014 YouTube video, “Chris Medlin for Pender County Commissioner,” includes the same email address.
Last week, Mayor Medlin said the family business no longer uses the email account associated with the website, nor had he used it while filing any past elections paperwork (the Onslow election document lists different email addresses for both Mayor Medlin and his son). When asked if his son was involved with the creation of the website, he said he hadn’t spoken to him about the issue but, to his knowledge, he was not.
When asked if he was involved with website last week, Chris Medlin said he had no response to the matter before adding, “I don’t know anything about [the website]. I’d have to look at it.”
Surf City Police Chief Ron Shanahan said his office had received a complaint and was “listening to Mr. Shugarts’ concerns.” Whether the website presented any legal issues, Shanahan declined to issue a statement pending legal consultation.
“At this time, we cannot offer any opinion. We have reached out to our legal counsel and are awaiting clarification on this matter,” Shanahan wrote in an email last week.
State Board: No appearance of campaign violation
A spokesperson for the North Carolina State Board of Elections said the website did not appear to violate any campaign finance laws. But he also noted that if a campaign committee made an expenditure for the website, that expenditure would need to be reported on a campaign finance report.
He then pointed to a North Carolina statute that writes it is unlawful “for any person to publish or cause to be circulated derogatory reports with reference to any candidate … knowing such report to be false or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, when such report is calculated or intended to affect the chances of such candidate for nomination or election.”
“This is a high standard to meet,” spokesman Patrick Gannon said. “We have no indication if the statements were indeed false, or if the statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity.”
But he did not reference a part of the statute that also states it is unlawful “for any person to publish in a newspaper or pamphlet or otherwise, any charge derogatory to any candidate or calculated to affect the candidate’s chances of nomination or election, unless such publication be signed by the party giving publicity to and being responsible for such charge.”
According to Gannon, a sponsor is only required to include a “paid for by” statement on print media, television, and radio advertisements.
The website also included a donation link beneath the words, “Help Our Cause: Your support and contributions will enable us to meet our goals and improve conditions. Your generous donation will fund our mission.”
“As for the donation button, it did not appear functional,” Gannon said. “We would need further information about what information was being solicited from donors before we could comment further.
Last week Shugarts addressed the validity of the website’s statements, which claimed he failed to attend six council meetings during his term as councilman, ran two businesses not registered in his name, and owed arrears in child support.
The first two claims appear to be true. A public records request was sent to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services in regards to the child support claim, but a spokesman for the department said state law prohibits the release of information about child support recipients.
Shugarts did say he still pays child support for two children in Ohio, and by law the state withholds, or “garnishes,” a portion of his income to make the payments. But he said he is no longer in arrears.
“I am not in arrears in my child support,” Shugarts said. “That allegation is completely incorrect. I have been in the past, but I haven’t been in the last couple years.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815