Friday, August 19, 2022

DA’s office disputes state investigators in election violations case against Surf City councilman

Surf City Councilman Jeremy Shugarts, who is challenging Mayor Doug Medlin for his seat in November, at a special meeting Thursday afternoon. Medlin is pictured at left. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Surf City Councilman Jeremy Shugarts challenged Mayor Doug Medlin for the mayor’s seat amid a 10-month investigation into election violations. Medlin is pictured at left during a special meeting held last year. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — Although a 10-month elections violations case brought against Surf City Councilman Jeremy Shugarts reached its conclusion last week, prosecutors are apparently at odds with state elections investigators over whether Shugarts benefited from errors made on past voter and campaign forms.

Last Friday, Shugarts’ six original felony charges were reduced to one misdemeanor in a plea deal made with the prosecutor handling the case.

RELATED: Surf City councilman reaches plea deal, potential election felonies reduced to misdemeanor

A report from the investigation revealed that Shugarts did not benefit from using his old address on the forms, according to his attorney, who last week criticized what he saw as a manipulation of the judicial process for political reasons. 

“There is a dangerous trend of the criminal process being used for political campaign purposes,” Elliot Abrams said following the trial. “These tactics undermine the public’s faith in our electoral process and undoubtedly discourage well-qualified candidates from running.”

The question seemed to be, if Shugarts would have been eligible to vote and run for office in Surf City regardless of whether he used his old or new address, why was the case prosecuted so vigorously?

District Attorney Ben David’s office has maintained that “achieving elected office was a benefit gained from [Shugarts’] criminal conduct,” according to spokesperson Samantha Dooies. 

The DA’s office has not elaborated on how Shugarts’ ‘benefit’ (i.e. being elected to town council) was achieved by filling out the wrong address, but acknowledged that other agencies might interpret the results of the investigation differently.

“While it is our position that Shugarts did benefit from the criminal conduct that he has since admitted to, others evaluating the evidence gathered in this investigation may disagree,” Dooies said on Thursday.

David’s office was forced to recuse itself as prosecutors in the case in September after an assistant district attorney spoke at a campaign event held for Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin. Shugarts was Medlin’s sole challenger for the mayor’s seat last November and eventually lost in a landslide.

The case fell on the desk of Chief Financial Crimes Prosecutor Chuck Spahos at the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys office in Raleigh. Questions sent last week to the district attorney’s office regarding its stance that Shugarts benefited politically from the violations were also directed to Spahos. 

Asked to explain how Shugarts “achieved elected office” by signing forms with an incorrect address, Spahos diverted to investigators.

“This question is better directed to the election officials and beyond the scope of the criminal case,” Spahos said in an email on Monday.

A public records request sent last October to the N.C. State Board of Elections Office (NCSBE), who handled the investigation, remains unanswered. Neither Spahos, the district attorney’s office, or the NCSBE have shared any details of the investigators’ report. 

Spahos also said that “his understanding is that [Shugarts] was a resident of Surf City at the time he qualified for office,” when asked whether it was disputed that Shugarts’ eligibility for office was affected by filling out an old address on the voter and candidacy forms. 

Spahos further stated that he couldn’t “speak to his ‘benefit’ for committing the violation that he pled guilty to.” 

The case goes back to March 2019 when First Assistant District Attorney Lillian Salcines Bright asked the NCSBE to conduct the investigation into Shugarts upon receiving a complaint from a resident living in a condominium once occupied by Shugarts and his wife — the same address that appeared on the six voting and candidacy forms that resulted in the violations, forms that he signed after he had moved from the address. 

On August 22, the NCSBE submitted its report to the district attorney’s office. The following Monday the case was presented to a Pender County grand jury, who indicted Shugarts on six felony charges. 

Bright declined to comment when asked if the full slate of evidence gathered by the NCSBE, including any exculpatory or mitigating evidence, was presented to the grand jury. 

According to Dooies, the NCSBE investigators had presented the evidence to the grand jury; no one from the district attorney’s office is permitted to be present during the proceedings, she said.

“[S]o we cannot comment on what was said or what evidence was presented: all we get at the conclusion of the Grand Jury proceeding is a copy of the indictment signed True Bill or No True Bill,” Dooies said. “True Bills of Indictment were issued in this case.”

She said the district attorney’s office “is able to proceed on the highest charge we believe we can prove at trial,” and the grand jury agreed that felony charges were appropriate.

After last Friday’s trial, Spahos confirmed that the plea agreement came as a result of evidence found during the NCSBE investigation, while also noting that Shugarts had still violated elections laws.

White collar crime attorney Elliot Abrams, who represented Shugarts in the case, said last October that the report revealed his client’s conduct was a matter of oversight and “not anything done with any type of nefarious intent.”

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


Send comments and tips to Mark Darrough at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815.

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