LAURINBURG — Scotland County’s District Attorney has officially closed the case on allegations of vote buying in the 2014 Scotland County Sheriff’s race.
In a 15-page report, District Attorney Kristy Newton said that the investigation failed to produce any credible evidence that either candidate paid people for votes.
“No criminal charges will be filed against either candidate or any of their subordinates for alleged wrongdoing in this matter,” the report said. “This investigation is officially closed.”
The case began when a complaint filed was with the Scotland County Board of Elections just before the polls closed on Nov. 4, 2014, alleging that Scotland County Sheriff Ralph Kersey had paid people to vote for him. Kersey, a Republican, defeated incumbent Sheriff Shep Jones, a Democrat, by 238 votes, out of 10,437 cast.
Kersey and his supporters were accused of offering cash, alcohol and food for votes.
Jones produced written statements from people who said they either were paid for their votes but didn’t vote, were offered money but didn’t take it, or observed possible vote-buying.
The State Board of Elections ruled that there was not adequate evidence that enough vote-buying occurred to warrant a new election. The board also decided to forward information it gathered about the situation to law enforcement for possible prosecution because in the North Carolina, vote-buying is a felony.
The day after the hearing, Jones conceded the race and said he wouldn’t pursue an appeal to the courts.
The District Attorney’s Office was referred the case in February 2015. DA Newton requested that the investigation be conducted by a special unit within the State Bureau of Investigation that specializes in high profile and public corruption investigations.
“Because of the sensitive nature of public corruption investigations, care is taken to insure independence,” Newton said.
The State Board of Elections conducted a separate investigation that was also been submitted to the district attorney’s office for review. Newton said the results of the two investigations “are consistent and have yielded the same result.”
DA Newton’s final report listed 28 complaints that were investigated and refuted. The names of the witnesses were not included in the document.
One of the complaints came from a group of about seven inmates who alleged that Kersey purchased pizza for inmates of the Scotland County Jail in exchange for votes. But the report said the pizza purchase had been approved by Jones.
“Ralph Kersey had no involvement in ordering, paying for, approving, or serving pizza to inmates,” the report found. “Pizza was regularly served to inmates over the course of seven years under the authority and approval of the Jones Administration. The pizza that was served to inmates on Election Day was approved by the Jones Administration and paid for by the county of Scotland.”
According to the report, some who witnesses claimed had information about vote buying denied such knowledge to investigators.
Other witnesses said that their original statements were untrue or that they did not write them. In one instance, a Jones supporter told investigators that he had been approached by an unknown black female and asked to help Jones “get a new election.”
“The unknown black female then wrote something on a piece of paper asked (the supporter) to sign it,” the report said. “(The supporter signed the paper without reading it.”
One person who provided two statements to investigators with the State Board of Elections, refused to provide a similar statement to the SBI. According to the report, that person had gone to vote at the National Guard Armory and said an unknown white female offered $40 in exchange for a vote for Kersey. Campaign workers for each candidate said they never saw anyone offer a person money or anything else of value in exchange for voting that day at the Armory, the report said.
In another complaint, it was alleged that voters were told that if they had voted in the May primary, they were not allowed to vote in the November election. The complainant alleged that this conduct suppressed the vote of voters who would have likely voted for Shep Jones. The individual who reported this information told investigators that he did not actually have personal knowledge that it occurred and could not identify anyone who was told this information, according to the report.
Jones, who became the county’s first black sheriff in 2006, was also accused of offering to pay people $100 in exchange for votes. The report said that allegation was “based on speculative rumor.”
“The people who reported this allegation to the NCSBI did not hear Mr. Jones make any offers to pay money in exchange for votes. Mr. Jones is officially cleared of any wrongdoing based on this allegation.”
The report said that supporters of each candidate also made claims that holding money in one’s hand, ‘secret handshakes’ and vague statements are proof that the opponent was paying voters for votes.
But Newton said it is not uncommon for various sides in a political contest to distrust opponents and accuse opponents of wrongdoing.
“Sometimes that perception is correct; other times it is not,” she said. “If allegations of wrongdoing are not fully investigated and explained, people are quick to embrace rumors as fact and believe that the allegations are true even if they are not.
“Because of the intense public interest in this important matter and the nature of the allegations, I have determined that it is appropriate to issue a detailed, written report documenting the findings of the investigation. A full understanding of the allegations and the facts revealed through the investigation should prevent continued speculation about what occurred and restore the public’s trust in the democratic process.”