Two men battling over the Columbus County sheriff’s seat have agreed that neither will occupy the office until state officials can sort out who officially won November’s election.
Under the terms of a settlement agreement reached Wednesday night, the Republican candidate, Jody Greene, will step aside, letting Capt. Jason Soles serve temporarily as the county’s top law enforcement official.
The Democratic candidate and incumbent, Lewis Hatcher, agreed to dismiss a lawsuit he filed last month seeking to establish that he was the sheriff at least until elections disputes were resolved, according to a statement released by the candidates’ attorneys. Other terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Greene led Hatcher by fewer than 40 votes in unofficial results. But several voters appealed to the state Board of Elections, primarily citing difficulties voting in Tabor City and questions about whether Greene fulfilled residency requirements.
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The race has also been ensnared in the ballot fraud investigation that has led to an empty seat in the U.S. Congress. The political operative at the center of that investigation, L. McCrae Dowless, worked for Greene, through Red Dome Group, a Charlotte-area political consulting firm that also worked for the Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina’s District 9, Mark Harris.
In December, the North Carolina State Board of Elections told the Columbus County elections board to hold off on issuing a certificate that would make the election results official, The News & Observer has reported.
A hearing before the state elections board is expected, but no date has yet been set. That’s in part because the state board planned to hold a hearing on the 9th District investigation first, but it was further delayed when a three-judge panel decided to dissolve the state elections board on Dec. 28 amid a separate legal battle. A new, reconstituted board was named Jan. 31. The 9th District hearing is set to begin Feb. 18.
Despite the close margin and elections protests unresolved, Greene was sworn into office Dec. 3. He’s been acting as sheriff since.
Hatcher didn’t file an election protest, but last month he filed the now-settled lawsuit seeking to establish that he was the rightful sheriff. Among the attorneys he hired was prominent civil rights attorney Irving Joyner.
The dispute has seen supporters split along racial lines. Hatcher, the incumbent, is African American. Greene, the challenger, is white.
The most acute conflict involved allegations that Hatcher was related to a man accused of shooting state Trooper Kevin Conner and that he tried to help the suspect evade arrest.
A Greene supporter wrote on Facebook that he heard the alleged shooter, who is African American, call Hatcher “uncle,” according to The (Whiteville) News Reporter. The supporter, Brandon Patrick, also said that Hatcher tried to move the suspect from a highway patrol vehicle into a vehicle that belonged to the sheriff’s office, according to the newspaper.
Hatcher told The News Reporter he was not related to the accused and had not tried to interfere with the arrest, and Greene distanced himself from the allegations in a Facebook post.
“Kevin Conner was a very, very dear friend,” Greene wrote on Facebook. “Make no mistake, I am my own man. I assure you I will say what’s on my mind, I don’t need Brandon Patrick, or any one else to speak for me. So if you don’t see the name Jody Greene attached, leave me out of it.”
Still, the rumor seemed to stick and to benefit Greene. Months later, some of Greene’s neighbors volunteered the story to The News & Observer as evidence for why Greene, not Hatcher, should be sheriff. When he was sworn in, Greene wore a lapel pin bearing Conner’s face.
Both candidates have long employment histories with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, and neither has agreed to an interview with The News & Observer despite multiple requests.
A joint statement issued by attorneys for Greene and Hatcher on Wednesday night said the settlement was intended to “set an example for the citizens of Columbus County that there is more that unites our county than divides it.”