BURGAW — The Pender Board of Elections Chairman said the county’s elections office stopped publishing campaign finance reports online in response to an investigation of Surf City Councilman Jeremy Shugarts — an investigation spurred on by fellow Councilman William “Buddy” Fowler.
“Safely and effectively and honorably executing the election” during a pandemic has been the main focus for the Pender County Board of Elections, according to Chairman Russell Fawcett. But when it comes to campaign finance — an important element of transparency in the election process — Fawcett said the Board stopped posting reports to its website sometime in 2018 in response to an investigation of current Surf City Councilman Jeremy Shugarts.
This is a different story than the county’s election manager, who indicated there was no particular reason that, unlike neighboring Brunswick and New Hanover counties, Pender had stopped making the finance records available on its website.
Chairman’s reason differs from elections officials
While county elections officials said there were no underlying reasons to stop publishing campaign finance reports, Chairman Fawcett linked the decision directly to the Shugarts investigation.
“I believe there was some controversy and I think there was a concern that the records that were posted were not necessarily current at the time,” Fawcett said. “I think it was in light of that context, and some question about: Did we have all the records? And could it have been inappropriate under those circumstances to maintain them? I think we just thought — Let’s get ourselves resolved on that particular aspect.”
But as residents prepare to vote on two county commissioner seats and two Board of Election seats this fall, the issue has not yet been resolved. Unlike Fawcett, officials at the BOE office said there was no underlying reason behind the 2018 decision to stop publishing the reports.
“I think we just stopped posting them,” Election Technician Theressa Lewis said. “They’re still available for anyone to look through.”
Elections Director Susan Williams, who began her duties in June 2019 — well after the decision was made to stop publishing the reports — emphasized the records are “available upon request for anyone who asks for them.” She said she hasn’t posted the reports due to her “personal preference” and because it is not legally required to do so.
“There’s no underlying reason not to have them [online],” Williams said. “I just have not posted them because it’s not required to have them posted by the state … I personally like to have those information requests in-hand for when people ask for certain information.”
When asked if posting the reports online — as Brunswick and New Hanover counties do — could signal to residents an effort toward a more transparent voting process, she responded, “I will bring that back to the Board for consideration.”
New Hanover Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens said that although she can’t speak for why other county boards don’t publish campaign finance reports, the reason was clear for her office.
“It has been our practice to do that for sometime. We’re just following the example of the State Board of Elections. We do it for transparency,” she said.
Chairman Fawcett said he is unaware of any requests by residents, candidates, or journalists to post the records online since the board stopped publishing them, until Port City Daily made the request last week.
“It’s hard to get motivated to do that kind of extra work [of updating the website] if there’s no apparent interest … If there had been occasional interest in reviewing campaign finance records, which are public and are accessible and available, it certainly would make since to post them on the website,” Fawcett said. “But for me, if there’s not any specific request, I just don’t know what the motivation would be to maintain that kind of content on the website.”
Asked if a motivation could be election transparency, he said he believed it to be “more of a perception issue than a substantive one” because last week’s request was the first since 2018. Furthermore, he said there would be an increased workload for staff to continuously update the website with submitted reports.
But he also said posting the reports online may be considered a best practice, and if he saw enough interest he would support the move.
“Oversight associated with candidate finance compliance is a very important function. At the moment we think we’re adequate and compliant. But this is a good opportunity to ask if we could do better, and publicize them on the website,” Fawcett said.
In other areas, Fawcett believes the office is effectively carrying out fair, safe elections: by opening a new satellite office in Hampstead, seeking input from leaders of both major political parties as well as the League of Women Voters — which was not done several years ago, according to Fawcett — and expanding weekend voting during the One-Stop Early Voting period in October.
“Of course we’re not perfect, and if there’s any area we want to strengthen, we want to do that,” he said.
The Shugarts investigation
The investigation of Shugarts, carried out by the state, found that the councilman had, in fact, used the wrong address on campaign forms. At the same time, the investigation also found he had never voted or run in an election he wasn’t allowed to based on residency, and that he had not gained politically from using the incorrect address.
The District Attorney’s office argued that Shugarts had benefited, but declined to explain how. However, the DA’s office ultimately recused itself after a prosecutor spoke at a campaign event held by Shugarts’ rival, incumbent mayor Doug Medlin. DA Ben David, like Medlin a Democrat, is not restricted from endorsing candidates — but employees in his office are barred from doing so.
The investigation has left several unanswered questions and gave many the impression of having been highly politicized, given that several powerful figures involved were Democrats and Shugarts is a Republican. Emails provided after a public records request revealed that Buddy Fowler, a Democrat and Medlin supporter, requested the investigation.
Shugarts was indicted in late August 2019 for felony election violations amid his campaign for the Surf City mayor’s seat, just two months prior to an election he lost to Medlin in a landslide. In response to a public records request by Port City Daily, emails revealed that two weeks after Shugarts announced his campaign in January 2018, Councilman Buddy Fowler made the initial request for an investigation into the validity of Shugarts’ voter registration address.
Fowler is a long-time political ally of Mayor Medlin who vocalized his support of the incumbent’s reelection throughout 2018. Although a five-month N.C. Board of Election investigation found evidence that Shugarts had violated state election law, it also found he did not benefit politically by using an old address when filling out five past voter forms and a notice of candidacy form. Shugarts reached a plea deal in January 2019 that reduced the six election violations — one for each inaccurate form — to one misdemeanor.
The BOE, DA, and the Shugarts investigation
Two weeks after Shugarts announced his bid for the mayor’s seat in January 2019, Fowler made an initial request for an investigation, although it was deemed “not actionable” by then-Elections Director Lillian Stainback.
Fowler’s complaint came six weeks before the N.C. State Board of Elections (NCSBE) received a formal investigation request from District Attorney Ben David’s office, which was based on a separate complaint from a private citizen, Brenda Sasser. The request was sent by Lillian Salcines Bright, who in January 2020 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, when Shugarts was indicted.
NCSBE Chief Investigator Joan Fleming, who has since retired, said her office received an investigation request from Fowler on January 30, separate from the complaint issued by Sasser, the private citizen.
“His name was William Fowler and he was asking for an investigation concerning the ‘validity’ of Shugart’s voter registration address,” Fleming wrote in an email sent last September.
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 Mayor Medlin at the Topsail Island Moose Lodge. The case was passed to the chief financial crimes prosecutor at the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys’ office in Raleigh.
Fowler then visited Williams in June 2019, soon after she started her job leading the Pender BOE office, to ask about opening an investigation of Shugarts, according to an email Williams sent to the NCSBE.
“A gentleman by the name of Buddy Fowler (councilman for Surf City) visited me today,” Williams wrote. “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 after reviewing voter registration records, Williams said she informed Fowler that Shugarts had updated his address in 2017.
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 [former NCSBE Chief Investigator] Joan Fleming.”
In February 2020, Fowler 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. “I have no further comment.”
Sasser, who made the complaint that opened the investigation, was unable to be reached for comment.
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