Thursday, July 25, 2024

State investigation: Surf City mayor candidate did not benefit from past election violations

The attorney for Surf City mayor candidate and sitting councilman Jeremy Shugarts said the state report "did not reveal any way that Shugarts would've benefited by using his old address." (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The attorney for Surf City mayor candidate and sitting councilman Jeremy Shugarts said the state report “did not reveal any way that Shugarts would’ve benefited by using his old address.” (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — A five-month investigation into election violations by Surf City Councilman and mayoral candidate Jeremy Shugarts revealed that he did not benefit from using an old address when filling out past voter forms and a notice of candidacy. The investigation did find evidence Shugarts had violated election law.

A report compiled by investigators from the State Board of Elections (NCSBE) was submitted to District Attorney Ben David’s office on August 22. Four days later the case was presented to a Pender County grand jury, which indicted Shugarts on six charges of election violations.

RELATED: Surf City councilman and mayoral candidate once lived at address listed in election violation indictments

“After reviewing the NCSBE report, our office determined that there were violations of the law,” Samantha Dooies, spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said. “The Pender County Grand Jury agreed and indicted on six charges.” 

No nefarious intent

The district attorney’s office recused itself from the Shugarts case on September 24 following a prosecutor’s speech at a campaign dinner held for Mayor Doug Medlin the prior weekend, citing a conflict of interest because the defendant is challenging Medlin for the mayor’s seat. There is also a state law that prohibits state employees, including appointed members of the district attorney’s office, from engaging in political activity while on duty.

The case was accepted by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys in Raleigh, and Chief Financial Crimes Prosecutor Chuck Spahos is now handling the case. Spahos said on Tuesday the matter is unlikely to come to a close before the November 5 election because he only received case files last week.

An attorney representing Shugarts in the case, Elliot Abrams, said the report showed that Shugarts’ conduct was a matter of oversight and “not anything done with any type of nefarious intent.” He read directly from the report.

“The investigation did not reveal any way that Shugarts would have benefited by using his old address,” Abrams quoted from the report.

When asked to confirm the accuracy of the quote, Spahos said that ethical guidelines governing public statements on criminal cases made it inappropriate to comment on any evidence while the case is pending.

Abrams is an attorney with Cheshire Parker Schneider in Raleigh, whose partner Joseph Cheshire led the defense of Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape in 2016. The trial led to the disbarment of District Attorney Mike Nifong, who it was discovered withheld DNA evidence that could have acquitted the defendants.

A hearing continues to be delayed; one was originally scheduled for September 30 before it was pushed to October 28. Although it remains on the calendar, Spahos said it will not be tried at this time.

“I received and reviewed a file last week and have scheduled a meeting with the investigators from the Board of Elections for this week,” Spahos wrote in an email Tuesday morning. “The case is currently on a calendar for October 28th. I can say it will not be tried on that date.”

A lengthy investigation

The delayed trial means the matter will remain unresolved since a Surf City resident initially sent a complaint to David’s office in February. In the complaint, the resident said Shugarts used her legal address as his own when filing a candidacy form in 2017. 

Soon after the August indictments, Shugarts’ wife said they had lived at the address in question for nearly three years, which was confirmed by Teresa Batts, a Surf City council member who said she handled the sale of the unit in 2012.

At a political forum held last Wednesday, Shugarts publicly addressed the charges when asked by a member of the audience.

“Five of the charges are as a result of my failure to update my driver’s license, from moving from one Surf City residence to the other,” Shugarts said. “That’s factual.”

He said that he has never voted in an election that he wasn’t legally entitled to vote in, and also explained his signing of a 2017 candidacy form that included his old address — filed when he was running for the council seat he currently occupies — which originally sparked the months-long investigation. 

“After I realized it — it was brought to my attention — I immediately did an amendment to that and I fixed it,” Shugarts told the audience. “And the Board of Elections allowed the amendment, before the election went off.” 

However, the amended candidacy form shows a signature from Shugarts ten months after the election, time-stamped September 4, 2018. According to his attorney, Shugarts had originally submitted the amended form without dating it. Ultimately, he said the NCSBE report itself confirmed that Shugarts had updated the form in 2017, and he again quoted directly from the report.

“Once this issue was brought to his attention, through a Pender County Board of Elections audit, Shugarts did amend his form immediately,” Abrams quoted from the report.

He said voters should not expect Shugarts’ charges to be resolved before the election because it is common for matters like this to go through a lengthy court process, particularly cases where the initial prosecutor recused himself. 

“That said, charges are just pieces of paper and are given no evidentiary weight,” Abrams said. “So it is important, particularly in cases of a political nature, that people not assume guilt — and that people do not change their vote based on allegations that are unproven and may well be unfounded.”

Spahos, the prosecutor, said he plans to discuss the case with Abrams this week.


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

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