BURGAW — A criminal case that plagued Surf City Councilman Jeremy Shugarts during his mayoral campaign last year has reached a conclusion following a plea agreement that reduced six election violations, each a potential felony, to one misdemeanor.
Shugarts pleaded guilty to one count of a Class 2 misdemeanor elections violation late Friday morning after his attorney, Elliot Abrams, reached a plea agreement with the prosecutor. Chuck Spahos from the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys in Raleigh was handling the case after District Attorney Ben David’s Office recused itself from the investigation following a prosecutor’s attendance of a campaign event for Mayor Doug Medlin.
Upon finding that Shugarts had completed 16 hours of community service with the Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, Superior Court Judge Claire Hill found Shugarts guilty of the misdemeanor and ordered payment of a $1,000 fine plus additional court fees. According to Abrams, the fine was offered voluntarily “to ensure that the taxpayers do not have to cover the cost of this investigation.”
Abrams issued a statement following Friday’s ruling, criticizing what he viewed as the manipulation of the judicial system for political reasons.
“There is a dangerous trend of the criminal process being used for political campaign purposes,” Abrams said. “These tactics undermine the public’s faith in our electoral process and undoubtedly discourage well-qualified candidates from running.”
In October, Abrams revealed that the state’s investigation of the matter found that Shugarts did not benefit from using an old address when filing past voter forms and a notice of candidacy in 2017.
Although Shugarts was indicted in late August for six separate counts of elections violations pertaining to five voter forms and one notice of candidacy form, the plea agreement included only one misdemeanor pertaining to the incorrect filing of the 2017 candidacy form.
In a review of the factual basis of the plea agreement, Spahos told the court that the 2017 candidacy form was populated with an address that Shugarts once resided at — meaning the address was already included on the form without Shugarts himself filling in that information — and submitted the form to Pender County Board of Elections officials.
“A subsequent investigation revealed that the defendant, while still living in Surf City, no longer resided at that residence,” Spahos told the court. “He submitted that form after signing that the information on it was correct.”
In the parking lot outside the courtroom, Spahos confirmed that the plea agreement came as a result of evidence found during an investigation carried out by the NC State Board of Elections (NCSBE).
But he did emphasize that Shugarts had violated elections laws.
“I mean he signed the form,” Spahos said. “And the [state] statute prohibits it because it has false information on it.”
A report of the state’s investigation was submitted to the district attorney’s office on August 22, and four days later the case was presented to a Pender County grand jury, which indicted Shugarts on six charges of election violations.
“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 in October. “The Pender County Grand Jury agreed and indicted on six charges.”
Editor’s Note: An email was sent to Dooies asking why the district attorney’s office presented felony charges to the grand jury if there was exculpatory evidence revealed in the NCSBE investigation — evidence that, according to the prosecutor, resulted in the plea agreement of a lesser Class 2 misdemeanor charge. This article will be updated with her response.
According to Abrams, Shugarts did sign a form that “unbeknownst to him, listed his old address.”
“Even the investigators admit that Mr. Shugarts gained nothing and had nothing to gain from this error, and that he corrected the oversight immediately when it was brought to his attention,” Abrams said Friday morning. “Years later, he was charged — and with six felonies. Whether anyone who was not a candidate challenging an entrenched politician would have been charged, I will leave that to you to decide.”
According to Abrams, Shugarts acknowledged that he unintentionally signed the candidacy form with incorrect information, and that he pleaded guilty to that as a low-level misdemeanor, not as a felony.
Read Abram’s full statement, on behalf of his client, below:
There is a dangerous trend of the criminal process being used for political campaign purposes. These tactics undermine the public’s faith in our electoral process and undoubtedly discourage well-qualified candidates from running.
Mr. Shugarts signed a form that, unbeknownst to him, listed his old address. Even the investigators admit that Mr. Shugarts gained nothing and had nothing to gain from this error, and that he corrected the oversight immediately when it was brought to his attention. Years later, he was charged—and with six felonies. Whether anyone who was not a candidate challenging an entrenched politician would have been charged, I will leave that to you to decide.
Ultimately, however, the law rightly requires people to read their election forms carefully, and even the unknowing signing of a form with incorrect information is a low-level misdemeanor. Mr. Shugarts acknowledges that he was moving too fast and didn’t read the form, and that the form was inaccurate. Mr Shugarts has accepted responsibility for this unintentional oversight, by pleading to this Class 2 misdemeanor, and was ordered to show proof of completion of 16 hours of community service, which he completed prior to court today. He also volunteered to pay a $1000 fine to ensure that the taxpayers do not have to cover the cost of this investigation. The felonies were dismissed.
Councilman Shugarts has been a force of important change on the city council, and he looks forward to continuing to push for transparency and other significant positive change that improves the quality of life for the people of Surf City.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815