SURF CITY — As the November local elections approach, Surf City councilman and mayoral candidate Jeremy Shugarts faces six counts of elections violations and a court date in late September.
An investigation began in February when District Attorney Ben David’s office received a citizen complaint concerning Shugarts’ residency status. The complaint was forwarded to investigators of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE).
In a March email between Assistant District Attorney Lillian Bright and Joan Fleming of the NCSBE, Bright asks the state office to conduct an investigation into the resident’s complaint.
“As you will note her concern is that a person by the name of Jeremy Shugarts used her legal address as his own when filing a notice of candidacy for the office of Town Councilman in Surf City, NC … I would ask you to conduct an investigation into [the resident’s] complaint,” Bright wrote.
Although a copy of the email sent to Port City Daily redacted the name of the resident, the address listed on each of the six indictments is 100 Gateway Condos Drive Unit 141, which according to Pender County land records was purchased in 2012 by Brenda Sasser. It is unclear whether Sasser, whose registered address with the county is in La Grange, North Carolina, currently lives in the condominium or rents out the unit.
Last Thursday, the NCSBE submitted their report to the District Attorney’s office. On Monday, a Pender County grand jury indicted Shugarts on six counts of election violation. Each violation is listed as a Class I felony, the lowest class of felonies in the state of North Carolina, carrying a maximum punishment of 24 months.
On Wednesday, Shugarts appeared in court and notified the judge he would hire attorney Elliot Abrams of the firm Cheshire Parker Schneider in Raleigh to represent him in the matter.
The firm is noteworthy for its partner, Joseph Cheshire, who led the defense of Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape in 2016. The trial ultimately led to the disbarment of the lead prosecutor in the case, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong.
Shugarts lived in the condo before 2012
According to Shugarts’ wife, Tracey Shugarts, the couple moved to Surf City from Ohio in June 2009, where they rented the unit at 100 Gateway Condos Drive and lived there until January 2012. This was confirmed by Councilwoman Teresa Batts, who was acting as a caregiver for the unit’s owner, Alston Burke.
When Burke passed away in June 2011, Ms. Shugarts said they decided to move to a house in Dogwood Lakes the following January as the unit was being prepared for a listing. Batts said she handled the sale of the unit, which was purchased by Sasser in May 2012.
After the move, Ms. Shugarts said they had their mail from the condominium address forwarded to a Surf City P.O. Box, but some mail would continue to arrive at the condominium, at which times Batts would help them retrieve it.
“So I’m assuming that’s what happened,” Ms. Shugarts said. “Many years later, that lady who was either renting or had purchased that property was getting mail in Jeremy’s name.”
The indictments pertain to five voter registration forms and one notice of candidacy form submitted between 2012 and 2017.
Shugarts’ voter registration records show that he signed two forms in 2016 with the Gateway Condos address pre-populated on the form. The notice of candidacy he signed on July 12, 2017 while running for his current council seat — the same that sparked the current investigation — was pre-populated with the same address.
More than a year later, in September 2018, he amended his 2017 notice of candidacy with an updated address in Dogwood Lakes, an area that was annexed into Surf City in 2005.
After a special meeting in Surf City on Thursday afternoon, Councilman Shugarts said he had been advised by his attorney to not speak on details of the indictments because it is an open investigation.
“I’m taking the charges very seriously,” Shugarts said. “And with our attorneys we’re going to defend ourselves and get them right.”
Batts also declined to comment on any details of Shugarts’ indictments, and clarified that it was not herself who filed the February complaint.
“It is a personal matter between Jeremy and the Elections Board,” Batts said. “I don’t want to see the town of Surf City look bad because of it. Because it’s a personal matter that needs to be taken care of.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815