Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Surf City mayor pro-tem first submitted request to investigate fellow councilman

Surf City Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem William “Buddy” Fowler, center, at a special meeting last summer. To his right is Councilman Jeremy Shugarts, who Fowler asked to be investigated for a voter registration violation, and to his left Mayor Doug Medlin. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — Mayor Pro-Tem William “Buddy” Fowler made the initial request to investigate possible election violations by fellow councilman Jeremy Shugarts, according to emails uncovered by a public records request.

This follows last month’s plea deal that reduced six felony indictments against Shugarts to one misdemeanor. After the trial his attorney, Elliot Abrams, suggested the investigation into his client had been politically motivated.

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

“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.”

The indictments came in late August, and the case against Shugarts remained unresolved by the time of the November mayoral election, which he lost to incumbent Mayor Doug Medlin in a landslide. 

The emails included in response to a public records request, sent by Port City Daily last October to the state agency carrying out the investigation, show that Abrams’ concern may be well-founded. 

Fowler submits initial complaint prior to DA’s request for investigation

Two weeks after Shugarts announced his bid for the mayor’s seat in January 2019, Fowler — a political ally of Medlin, who was Shugarts’ sole opponent in the race — made an initial request for an investigation, although it was deemed “not actionable” by then-Pender County Elections Director Lillian Stainback.

Fowler submitted his complaint concerning the “validity” of Shugarts’ voter registration address, according to an email sent in September by NCSBE Chief Investigator Joan Fleming, who has since retired. Her email outlined Fowler’s request to open an investigation, as well as an additional request he sent in June.

Fowler’s January 2019 complaint came six weeks before the NCSBE received a formal investigation request from District Attorney Ben David’s office, which was based on a separate complaint from a private citizen. The request was sent by First District Attorney Lillian Salcines Bright, who last month 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 last August.

“The business operations side of our agency did receive a complaint associated with Shugarts via a help request on or about January 30, 2019 from a different citizen from our present, open investigation,” Fleming said in an email sent in September. “His name was William Fowler and he was asking for an investigation concerning the ‘validity’ of Shugart’s voter registration address.”

The private citizen, Brenda Sasser, owns the condominium that Shugarts and his wife lived in up until 2012. It is the same address that appeared ‘re-populated’ on five past voter forms and one 2017 candidacy form, which Shugarts had each time signed to verify his current address.

Abrams has not provided to Port City Daily a copy of the investigation’s report; neither has the NCSBE or the DA’s office, claiming confidentiality concerns. But according to Abrams, the report directly stated that “the investigation did not reveal any way that Shugarts would have benefited by using his old address.”

Weeks after NCSBE investigators presented their report to a Pender County grand jury, the DA’s office recused itself from prosecuting the case after one of its prosecutors spoke at a campaign dinner held for Medlin at the Topsail Island Moose Lodge. The case was passed to Chief Financial Crimes Prosecutor Chuck Spahos at the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys’ office in Raleigh.

Fowler’s January 2019 complaint was deemed to be ‘not actionable,’ according to Fleming’s email, due to a court order by U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs “enjoining and restraining BOE voter registration removals based solely upon residency challenges.”

Fleming said the NCSBE investigations unit was not aware of Fowler’s complaint when it was received and handled by the agency’s business operations unit.

Fowler submits a second complaint

Fowler became Mayor Pro-Tem in 2017, replacing Medlin, who had been appointed mayor after Zander Guy resigned to take a job as chairman of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. In the 2019 municipal elections, Fowler ran in support of Medlin and fellow incumbent Donald Helms and former Marine Dwight Torres. Shugarts, who still retains his seat on the council, campaigned alongside several challengers, who each lost in the race for three council seats.

On June 25, Fowler sent a second complaint to the NCSBE after visiting current Pender Elections Director Susan Williams, this time “alleging campaign finance violations by Shugarts,” according to Fleming. 

“A gentleman by the name of Buddy Fowler (councilman for Surf City) visited me today,” Williams wrote to the NCSBE office. “He showed me all the paperwork he has on Mr. Shugarts, even though I stated that this is not in my jurisdiction. The complaint is that Mr. Shugarts filed to run for the town council in 2017, and used an address that he had not lived at in five years. Mr. Shugarts lived at a new address (still within town limits).” 

According to Williams, Fowler had informed her that Shugarts did not update his address “until well after the time limit.” But upon review of voter registration records, Williams said she informed him that Shugarts had updated his address in 2017.

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)
Shugarts addressed the six indictments against him at a candidate forum last October. “I’ve never voted in an election that I was not entitled to legally, ever,” he said. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Fowler also showed Williams a campaign finance report form that was not updated until 2018, according to Williams. 

“He wants to pursue an investigation and said he had complained to both former directors here,” Williams wrote. “He wants to know what has happened, and did those directors send anything to the State Board. Did Mr. Shugarts get a fine for late campaign finance records? I explained several times that this is a matter for investigations and that he needs to file his complaint with the State. I gave him the email address for Joan Fleming.”

According to Fleming, Fowler’s second complaint was sent to the NCSBE’s campaign finance division. When asked last week if there was an ensuing investigation into Shugarts for possible campaign finance violations, and whether such an investigation came to any conclusion, NCSBE spokesperson Patrick Gannon replied, “We are still researching this.” 

Fleming’s email goes on to state that Sasser’s complaint was based on seeing her condominium address associated with Shugarts’ 2017 candidacy application, “which she noted was signed and sworn by Shugarts as containing true information” in possible violation of NCGS 163-275(4).

“As such, it was opened as an investigation concerning a false statement made on a signed, sworn elections document signed and dated by Shugarts in 2017, which happened to contain a false address, that being an address that he knew, or should have known, that he had not resided at since 2012. Additional instances of falsely swearing by Shugarts were coincidently discovered during investigation in June and July of the primary complaint made by Sasser,” Fleming wrote.

Responses from Fowler and the NCSBE

Port City Daily informed Fowler of the contents of these emails last week.

He was asked why he filed his complaint against a fellow councilman just weeks after Shugarts announced his bid for the mayor’s seat; whether he had any communications with Sasser, after his own complaint was deemed not actionable, and in any way encouraged her to file a separate complaint to the DA’s office; and if he believed his complaints were valid given the sensitive timing of the investigation — one that reportedly showed evidence that Shugarts did not politically benefit from using an old address — and the ensuing indictments prior to the election.

“I was elected by the citizens of Surf City to be their voice and representative on Surf City Town Council,” Fowler responded. “As a councilman, I have a moral and ethical responsibility to try and help all our citizens find answers to their concerns. I will continue to work towards this end for all our citizens while I hold elected office.”

Asked again if he encouraged Sasser to submit her own complaint, Fowler did not respond. 

Shugarts did not directly address Fowler’s two requests for investigations. 

“Enough damage has already been done to my family, name, and this community,” Shugarts said in a text message on Monday. “I have no further comment.”

Sasser, who made the complaint that opened the investigation, was unable to be reached for comment.

Last week Gannon, the NCSBE spokesperson, was asked why Sasser’s complaint was considered actionable when Fowler’s initial complaint was not.

“We became aware of additional information and upon further review it was determined that he had remained registered, voted, and held office at an address where he had not lived for a number of years,” Gannon replied. “According to public records, his wife updated her voter registration in 2014. He would have had to state his name and address to a poll worker each time he voted.”

But according to Shugarts’ wife, Tracey Shugarts, he was not required to state his address to elections officials.

“Jeremy said he just walked in and gave his name, and they were like, ‘Yep, sign here and go vote,’” she said, adding that the forms already included the old address because he had failed to update his DMV information. 

According to Abrams, his client did sign the 2017 candidacy 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. “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.”

Spahos, the prosecutor handling the case, confirmed after the trial that the plea agreement came as a result of evidence found during the NCSBE investigation.

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.”

When asked to confirm if the NCSBE report did not reveal any way that Shugarts benefited from using his old address, Gannon said “the referral document is confidential.”

“Whether a benefit was achieved has no bearing on whether a crime was committed under N.C.G.S. 163-275 (4),” Gannon added.

Whether NCSBE investigators presented their report’s mitigating evidence to the Pender Grand Jury in August — including Pender County’s elections director informing Fowler that Shugarts still lived in an address within town limits and had updated his address in 2017 — Gannon responded, “We cannot comment on what happened before the grand jury.”

Gannon also added the following statement:

As elections officials, we take violations of election laws seriously. Mr. Shugarts, a candidate for mayor of Surf City, was indicted by a grand jury on six felony counts and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

But while the prosecutor confirmed that the reduced charges came as a result of evidence discovered in the investigation, the DA’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 explained how Shugarts benefited from using an old address to achieve an election to town council, but acknowledged others may interpret 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 last month. 

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