By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News
(June 16, 2011 edition)
The Yancey County Board of Elections has received word from the district attorney about the possibility of a formal investigation into why four felons on probation were allowed to vote in the general election last year.
Charles McCurry, chairman of the county board of elections, said District Attorney Gerald Wilson wrote that the voting issue “needs to be looked into,” but McCurry added: “We don’t know if there’s going to be charges or not.”
The fact that at least four felons who had been stripped of their right to vote were allowed to cast ballots was first publicly documented in an investigation by the Yancey County News, which compared court dockets in the days leading up to the election with the election rolls.
When the newspaper reported the illegal votes, McCurry began gathering facts to present to the district attorney. He started with the names published in the newspaper, compared them to voting records and then cross-referenced them with online data that the state Department of Corrections posts online, which the newspaper had also done. The corrections data showed that the four were still serving probation for felony convictions at the time they cast their ballots.
State law allows felons to automatically regain their voting rights once they complete all orders of the court, whether active sentences or probation. As the four were still on probation, they had not regained their right to vote.
The letter sent to McCurry was a copy of a letter sent to Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state board of elections.
Don Wright, the legal counsel for the state board, told the Yancey County News on Wednesday that general statute requires the state board and the district attorney to be involved in the prosecution of cases involving violations of voting law. “On occasion, the district attorney will say ‘I would like more information,’ and we can provide that; that’s not unusual,” he said.
But for prosecution to move beyond theory is up to the district attorney, Wright said. “He makes the call to prosecute. Ultimately the call is that of the district attorney.”
Soon after the details of the illegal votes were documented in the newspaper, one of the felons who illegally voted came to the offices of the Yancey County News to complain about the story. When it was pointed out to him that the report was true and accurate, he told to a newspaper employee that he had voted illegally because then-chief deputy Tom Farmer had approached him and offered to reduce charges that had been filed against him in return for his vote.
Farmer – the second in command at the sheriff’s department – played a large role in the sheriff’s campaign, with his photograph even prominently included in election advertising that urged Yancey residents to support Sheriff Gary Banks.
Banks was seeking elected office for the first time after being appointed sheriff to replace his father, Kermit Banks, when the elder Banks announced his retirement.
Farmer’s name also cropped up when the Yancey County News sought and received copies of the documentation filed by voters requesting absentee ballots for the 2010 general election.
Those documents had been seized by state officials and taken to Raleigh last year as part of a criminal investigation begun after numerous public complaints of wrongdoing in the general election.
The newspaper asked the state board of elections to provide copies of public documents that were part of each mail-in absentee ballot cast in the 2010 election. In response to its request, the newspaper received approximately 8,000 pages of records that show who requested a mail-in ballot for the Yancey County election, the handwriting used on the application, the handwriting on the envelope in which the application was enclosed, the handwriting and signatures on the formal statement in which the voter affirmed to be a legal voter, and the signature of the individual who witnessed the ballot for the voter.
A complete survey of the forms show that Farmer acted as the official witness on eight mail-in absentee ballots.
While any adult in the state can be asked to witness a mail-in absentee ballot, the fact that Farmer and other sheriff’s department officers acted as witnesses on more than 90 ballots has fed suspicions at the state board of elections.
The investigation took a turn earlier this year when Farmer resigned after a Yancey County News investigation proved that he had frequently pawned county-owned guns for personal gain. Officials later said Farmer had pawned at least a dozen firearms.
At the time, Sheriff Banks said he conducted an internal investigation – not a criminal investigation - into the theft of the guns because the SBI had been brought into the case to investigate whether the chief deputy had himself committed felonies. This newspaper sought a copy of the final report from that internal investigation because state laws says such information can be public record if it “is essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration.”
The newspaper’s request was denied by county officials who said the report couldn’t yet be released because “a criminal investigation” was ongoing.
The county manager said at the time that he based that decision on the fact that he had formally asked District Attorney Gerald Wilson to enlist the State Bureau of Investigation in a criminal probe into Farmer and the theft of the department guns. But this newspaper found out earlier this month that no one ever did ask the state to investigate Farmer and the missing guns or to determine what he did with the money he received when he pawned them. According to a spokeswoman with the state Department of Justice, Raleigh thought it was “handled at the local level.”
Some Yancey County residents have questioned whether the district attorney should have been recused from the case because he had very publicly endorsed the chief deputy’s boss in the sheriff’s race. Wilson’s endorsement was announced in a large newspaper advertisement prior to the election.
Soon after Farmer’s resigned, his father was hired to work at the sheriff’s department. At about the same time, two ranking sheriff’s officers who had acted as the formal witness on at least 67 mail-in absentee ballots announced their retirements.
The state’s criminal investigation into the general election also expanded last month when the county board of elections voted to ask the executive director of the state board of elections to fire the director of the Yancey County board of elections on allegations that she violated the law and conducted herself in an improper manner.
That petition could result in a formal hearing in Burnsville by the state board of elections.