Thursday, July 25, 2024

Prosecutor spoke at Surf City mayor’s campaign event, DA’s office recused from case against challenger

District Attorney Ben David's Office said requests to speak at the mayor’s campaign dinner came via three phone calls from the mayor and his personal assistant, none of which disclosed the "actual nature of the event."

According to District Attorney Ben David's Office, Surf City Doug Medlin, pictured here at a recent special meeting, asked the DA to speak at at a campaign dinner over the weekend, but did not inform him it was a political event. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin, pictured here at a meeting last month, asked District Attorney Ben David to speak at at a campaign dinner over the weekend but did not inform him it was a political event, according to David’s assistant. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — District Attorney Ben David’s Office has recused itself from an investigation of Mayor Doug Medlin’s political opponent following a prosecutor’s official speech at a campaign dinner held for the mayor over the weekend.

Councilman Jeremy Shugarts, Medlin’s sole challenger for the mayor’s seat this November, was indicted last month on six counts of elections violations in a case that began when the district attorney’s office forwarded a resident’s complaint to the State Board of Elections’ investigative unit.

Samantha Dooies, assistant to the district attorney, said the Saturday evening event was billed to the district attorney’s office as a public community event, and at no time was there “any representation that this was a political event.” She said it was further represented that members from other state, federal, and local agencies would be present at the community forum.

RELATED: Surf City town manager’s demotion came shortly after altercation with mayor’s personal assistant

“The requests came by three phone calls and we were told it was a community event,”  Dooies said. “Had we been told the actual nature of the event, we would have responded to the request differently and not sent a representative from the office.”

Members of the DA’s office on Monday discussed the potential conflict of interest that the event created with their continued involvement in the Shugarts case, according to Dooies, and decided to recuse themselves from the case. On Tuesday, David spoke to the NC Conference of District Attorneys about accepting the case, which they did.

According to a state law restricting state employees’ participation in political activity, no individual employed by the state — which includes appointed members of the district attorney’s office — can engage in political activity while on duty. David informed Medlin that he could not attend the event following a death in his family, and Assistant District Attorney Conor Dagnan was sent in his absence.

The initial request for participation in the event came by phone to David from Medlin, according to Dooies, but David could not attend on the day it was originally scheduled.

“We were later notified, again by phone, that the event had been rescheduled to September 21 … Due to a death in the family, [David] was unable to attend, which he told Mr. Medlin by phone,” Dooies said. “A member of our staff got a call from Mr. Medlin’s assistant asking if we could send someone in his place.”

Mayor Doug Medlin, right, introduces Assistant District Attorney Conor Degnan at his campaign dinner last Saturday. (Port City Daily photo/File)
Mayor Doug Medlin, right, introduces Assistant District Attorney Conor Degnan at his campaign dinner last Saturday. (Port City Daily photo/File)

Dooies then asked Degnan, a Pender County prosecutor, to fill in for David. Degnan spoke to Medlin’s assistant Misty LaPointe about the event by phone last Thursday afternoon, according to Dooies, and she asked him to discuss the district attorney office’s prosecution of drug crimes.

[Editor’s note: Following the publication of this article, LaPointe disputes Dooies’ account, saying when Degnan called she passed the phone to Mayor Medlin. LaPointe said she told Degnan that Medlin would better be able to explain the topic and what he wanted to be discussed at the dinner.]

A recording of Degnan’s speech at the Topsail Island Moose Lodge on Saturday was provided to Port City Daily. In the speech, Degnan stuck to his script while discussing his office’s work prosecuting drug and other crimes in Pender County, making no mention of Medlin or any endorsement of Medlin’s campaign.

“Had we understood the true nature of this event, we would have explained that … it would be improper for any member of the DA’s Office to attend in any official capacity,” Dooies said. “Mr. David makes an effort to remain independent regarding political races aside from his own and is not in the habit of endorsing candidates running for office within his district.”

She said Degnan’s presence at the event was not a political endorsement of Medlin’s election, rather it was David’s office “fulfilling a commitment that we have a representative speak about our work.”

Mayor Medlin responds

When asked if he had informed either David or Degnan that the event was a campaign dinner, Medlin said speakers at the event were not asked for a political endorsement nor did he believe they attended for that purpose.

“The event was a public community event,” Medlin said. “Representatives from other state, local and federal agencies were invited and did attend. The speakers at the event spoke on matters that are important to the town such as beach nourishment, hurricane recovery, and growth in our schools. Additionally, Assistant District Attorney Degnan spoke on the District Attorney’s Office stance on drugs, a problem that is plaguing our area, this state and the nation as a whole.”

However, event posters published on the mayor’s Facebook campaign page in the days leading up to the dinner clearly advertised the political nature of the event. The first, posted last Thursday, read, “We invite you to a Campaign Dinner for Doug Medlin, Mayor of Surf City, NC.”

Event posters for a campaign dinner to re-elect Mayor Doug Medlin were posted to Medlin's Facebook campaign page in the days leading up to the event. (Graphic courtesy of the Re-Elect Medlin for Mayor Facebook page)
Event posters for a campaign dinner to re-elect Mayor Doug Medlin were posted to Medlin’s Facebook campaign page in the days leading up to the event. (Graphic courtesy of the Re-Elect Medlin for Mayor Facebook page)

Dooies said both David and Degnan were not told it was a campaign event, nor were they aware of the Facebook posts advertising it as a campaign dinner.

Medlin said the public was invited to the event and the dinner was free of charge, and that he asked David to attend months before the indictments against his political opponent were announced.

I first invited Ben David to speak at this event on May 16, when I spoke to him at the Cape Fear Community College Scholarship luncheon,” Medlin said. “This was months before the indictments [against Shugarts]. This event was positive for the town. The public who attended were able to hear from a variety of officials on subjects that are very important to our citizens.”

When asked for his response to the Shugarts case, Medlin said he is focused on his job as mayor and did not have “any further comment on the private life of Councilman Shugarts at this time.”

A white collar crime division within the NC Conference of District Attorneys will now handle the Shugarts case, according to Dooies. Following the investigation by the State Board of Elections, the case was presented to a Pender County grand jury, which indicted Shugarts on six counts of elections violations in late August.

Shugarts is scheduled to appear for trial in the Pender County Superior Court on Monday.

[Editor’s note: This article initially identified the September 21 gathering incorrectly as a “fundraiser,” although this was corrected with minutes to read “campaign event.” The state law prohibiting a representative of the District Attorney’s Office does not differentiate between the two.]


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815

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