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Was it ‘vote hauling’ or buying votes?

April 16th, 2019

— In late November 2015, the State Board of Elections received a series of emails that quickly caught the attention of the agency’s senior-most officials.

It was an off-year for elections. But even in a year when voters don’t elect new presidents, congressmen or state lawmakers, things are far from quiet at the agency that oversees elections administered in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

On the municipal and county level, more than 1,000 races and referenda were on local ballots on Nov. 3, 2015, drawing more than 400,000 voters to the polls.

The timing was notable for another reason: It was the first real election cycle for a newly minted investigative team funded and charged by the General Assembly to protect against fraud and impropriety in elections.

The emails that raised eyebrows in 2015 didn’t concern the 9th Congressional District, which made national headlines in 2018. Instead, they focused on a nonpartisan race for city council in Lumberton, where one candidate accused her opponent of paying three voters to cast ballots in exchange for $7 apiece.

In Robeson County, voters and candidates alike have long levied vote-buying allegations. But they’re hard to prove.

This time, the complaint said, the candidate cut the three voters a single check.

Noted on the memo line were two words: “Voting Citizens.”

Elections investigators opened the case on Nov. 23, 2015, when the race itself was still undecided – only one vote separated the two candidates, both registered Democrats.

What investigators uncovered in the weeks that followed in part triggered a new election in Lumberton District 7, just as another investigation did three years later in the 9th Congressional District. As they did in the 9th District, investigators forwarded their findings to a district attorney, who had the power to decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

In Lumberton, those charges never came.

Instead, the case summary election investigators completed in January 2016 was filed away, never revealed publicly until now, following a records request by WRAL News.

State elections officials have expressed frustration over the lack of criminal charges in past cases of alleged election fraud. They say when these crimes go unprosecuted, they embolden bad actors and put future elections at risk.

They point to the Lumberton case as a prime example.

The district attorney at the time says it wasn’t quite so clear cut.

It’s even muddier now, more than three years later. The candidate accused of buying votes, who at the time adamantly denied any wrongdoing, died in 2018. The voters he allegedly paid to cast ballots have changed their stories.

But for Josh Lawson, the top lawyer at the state elections board, an important question remains as the state grapples with the public perception of its election integrity.

“You can have all the criminal laws in the world,” Lawson said, “but if they’re not being enforced in a way that’s productive, do the criminal laws matter?”

Laura Sampson

Laura Sampson and Leon Maynor have something of a history.

First elected to the Lumberton City Council in 1995, Maynor held the seat vacated when his brother Glenn was elected sheriff. Glenn Maynor would later resign as sheriff before receiving a federal prison sentence for corruption after Operation Tarnished Badge, a six-year federal and state probe that ensnared 22 officers.

Sampson first challenged Leon Maynor for the seat in 2007. The two Democrats, both members of the Lumbee tribe, tied their first contest at 215 votes.

The subsequent runoff took place amid allegations that Sampson bought votes using $5 vouchers to the local Huddle House restaurant.

“They made a big deal of that. They got ahold of one of these tickets, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, she’s buying votes, and we have the tickets,'” Sampson said in an interview with WRAL News. “But it wasn’t. It was for my workers, people working on my campaign.”

Two years later, District Attorney Johnson Britt told The Robesonian newspaper there would be no criminal charges, despite “signs of impropriety.”

Leon Maynor won the 2007 runoff. But Sampson mounted a challenge in 2011 and another in 2015, when the votes were again all but tied – Maynor’s 282 to Sampson’s 281.

That’s when Sampson got ahold of the check.

'Voting Citizens'

Sampson didn’t know Hubert Sealey. But when the former law enforcement officer and Robeson County commissioner reached out to her after the election, she listened.

He told her he had proof that Leon Maynor was buying votes. He gave Sampson an image of a $21 check written to Eula Mae Brown on Oct. 23, 2015. In Maynor’s handwriting, right next to his signature, the memo line read “Voting Citizens.”

The case summary shows State Board of Elections Chief Investigator Charles Stuber, a former FBI agent, interviewed Sealey in late November 2015.

Sealey said he got a copy of the check from Clentel Thompson, a childhood friend. Thompson said Leon Maynor had paid him, Eula Mae Brown and her daughter, Cassandra Brown, $7 each to cast their ballots for the candidate.

Maynor wrote the check to Eula Mae Brown, Sealey said, because neither Thompson nor Cassandra Brown had identification to cash it.

The investigator wrote in his notes that “Sealey stated that Thompson is an honest person, and he knows Thompson is telling the truth about Maynor paying him for his vote.”

When investigators went to Eula Mae Brown though, they got a different story. Notes from the interview with Brown say she denied she and the others were paid for their votes, and she eventually “became very hostile and refused to answer any more questions.”

But just a week earlier, Eula Mae Brown had told Sampson in a written statement that she knew the payments were for votes.

Cassandra Brown told investigators the same thing, noting they cashed the check and split the money three ways.

Interviewed twice by investigators, Thompson also confirmed that Leon Maynor had paid them for their votes.

“He gave us $7 apiece to vote for him,” Thompson said to Sampson in a video she sent to the State Board of Elections.

But Maynor vehemently denied the allegation when investigators spoke with him on Nov. 23, 2015.

He said he routinely paid campaign workers $5 a head, plus gas money, to transport people to the polls. It’s a practice commonly called “vote hauling” that is not illegal.

When investigators brought up the check, Leon Maynor said the payment to Eula Mae Brown was for her work getting three voters together to cast ballots. Maynor didn’t include Brown in that total – instead, he listed Thompson, Brown’s daughter and a third person, Christopher McRae.

All four of them, Maynor said, piled into his own black Honda, and he drove them to the polls.

“Maynor (said) that he and his wife are respectful individuals, and he is a man of integrity,” elections investigator Matthew Martucci’s notes from the interview read. “Maynor stated ‘that there is no way, God is my witness, I never paid anyone to vote.'”

State records show all four of them cast their ballots on Oct. 23, 2015, the same date that appears on the check.

McRae confirmed to investigators that he rode with Maynor. He said he wasn’t paid to vote, and Thompson didn’t mention him in initial interviews.

With his $7 share of the $21 check, cashed at a nearby Chinese restaurant, Thompson told investigators he bought cigarettes and beer.

He didn’t tell Leon Maynor that he actually voted for Sampson.

Records show investigators last spoke with Thompson on Jan. 15, 2016, while he was at work. They said he, Eula Mae Brown and her daughter would all be subpoenaed to testify before the State Board of Elections in the coming days.

“Thompson stated that he will be working and will not be able to appear,” Martucci’s notes read.

The minutes from that hearing, held in nearby Pembroke, on Jan. 19, 2016, note that none of the three appeared before the board.

When Martucci, a former New York City police detective, took the stand, he told board members the investigation into allegations of vote buying was continuing and that some information was still confidential.

“Do you have evidence in your possession that would substantiate one or more of those assertions either in the form of written statements, videos, canceled checks or any other evidence?” asked board member Joshua Malcolm, a Robeson County native.

“Yes, we do, sir,” Martucci said.

Based on Martucci’s investigation and other irregularities, the board voted unanimously to hold a new election in Lumberton District 7 and forward the findings to the State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

It’s unclear what response, if any, the board received from acting Eastern District U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce, tapped for the role just weeks before. The elections board has so far been unable to provide any correspondence from his office.

The response from District Attorney Johnson Britt, who had the authority to levy criminal charges in Robeson County, came on March 2, 2016, to the SBI agent and elections investigators on the case.

“It is my opinion that the information submitted to support the allegations are insufficient to establish probable cause that a crime was committed and are grossly inadequate to support further criminal investigation by your agency,” Britt wrote.

Two weeks later, Leon Maynor won the special election in Lumberton by 20 votes.

Leon Maynor

Leon Maynor died July 2, 2018. After six terms in office, he was the city’s longest-serving council member.

Grady Hunt, a Robeson County attorney who represented Maynor at the State Board of Elections hearing, initially agreed to review records from the elections investigation shared with him by WRAL News before commenting further on the case.

He ultimately declined an interview when reached Thursday by email.

“Leon is deceased. There is no good purpose in a story about a deceased person who is not in a position to defend himself,” Hunt wrote. “I have nothing to add to your story. I will respect the dead.”

But in a brief phone conversation last week, Hunt said he remembered the allegation at the time and didn’t think much of the evidence.

“Who would be stupid enough to put it in a check?” Hunt said.

That’s not how officials with the State Board of Elections see their findings.

Lawson said they had reason to believe a crime had been committed, and, as the law required, they forwarded it to Britt.

“In this case, a close look resulted in a wildly different conclusion by the DA that I don’t know was supported by that record,” Lawson said. “But I wasn’t the DA.”

Britt left the DA’s office in 2018 after opting not to run again. He says he still stands behind his decision not to bring charges in the vote-buying case.

In an interview with WRAL News, he cited credibility issues with the witnesses, who changed their stories and ultimately refused to testify. He also cited Leon Maynor’s own denial and explanation of the $21 check: that the money was for vote hauling.

“In any criminal investigation, in any criminal prosecution, all doubt goes to the accused,” Britt said. “Because I thought there were credibility problems, I thought that it did not rise to the level of probable cause that a crime had been committed. There was suspicion, but that’s all it was – suspicion.”

In addition to interviews with Thompson, Eula Mae Brown, her daughter and others, state elections investigators submitted 10 different checks written from Leon Maynor’s campaign account to workers and vendors. Several note “hauling” in the memo line, but the check to Brown stands out even to Britt.

“Then you have the entry on the check in question, and it says ‘Voting Citizens,'” Britt said. “I can’t explain that, and I don’t know that anyone ever questioned him about that.”

Like Hunt, Maynor’s attorney, Britt also expressed skepticism that Maynor would commit a felony with a clear paper record.

“I certainly don’t believe, if he was buying votes, he would have written a check,” Britt said. “It would have been a cash payment of some kind, but not a check.”

Although Britt described the election board’s evidence and investigation as “lacking,” he and his SBI counterpart agreed no further criminal investigation was necessary.

But it was his call not to seek charges, he said. He said he still believes he wouldn’t have been able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.

“I think you have to look at his explanation,” Britt said. “That’s the best explanation as to why he wrote it that way, in that he was paying Ms. Brown for gathering three voters, not including herself, to go vote.”

Johnson Britt

It’s certainly true that Thompson has changed his story about the payment from Maynor since 2015.

“That wasn’t for no vote. It was for something to eat,” Thompson said when reached Thursday by phone. “Now, I’m through with this.”

He declined to make Eula Mae Brown, who was speaking in the background of the call, available for comment. He said he didn’t want to talk about the subject any more before hanging up.

Vote buying – for the buyer and the seller – is a felony in North Carolina. So Sampson said she’s not surprised Thompson didn’t want any more attention.

“You have to understand, they’re afraid,” said Sampson, who heard the call with Thompson Thursday. “They’re afraid.”

Years after the election, she and her campaign manager, Wixie Stephens, say they’re still frustrated about the lack of action in the case.

“When is it enough?” Sampson said in an interview last week. “If this is not enough, when is it enough?”

Sampson said she believes Britt’s decision not to prosecute was an attempt to protect Leon Maynor and the county’s status quo. The fact that her complaint went nowhere was one of the reasons she doesn’t plan to run again.

“When you have things like this play out, how does it offer you hope? It doesn’t,” Sampson said. “It’s a reminder that good ol’ boys are still in control.”

Britt squarely denies that politics played a role.

His goal, he said, was to do the right thing, no matter “whose toes it might step on.”

“My decision was not influenced by who I knew, who I didn’t know,” Britt said. “My decision was based upon the information that was provided to me.”

Sampson remembers asking elections investigators at the time: Will this really make a difference? They told her it would. She was told the investigative team at the elections board had been overhauled, and she was impressed by their law enforcement experience.

She believes they did their jobs.

“At the end of the day, it comes back to this county, and it’s up to the leadership of this county to decide,” Sampson said. “His decision was a no. Why?”

Britt’s decision in 2016 was not the first time local prosecutors – or even state and federal ones – have declined to pursue charges over allegations of election improprieties.

In 2010, for example, a special deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice declined a request from Bladen County’s top prosecutor to look into vote-buying allegations there. Despite allegations of “voter fraud and assorted trickery,” the DOJ lawyer wrote, most alleged victims were elderly and unreliable – they weren’t credible witnesses.

The Robeson County case stands out in some respects, said Lawson. But he said it’s also emblematic, in some ways, that the agency sometimes has a difficult time “getting traction” with local prosecutors.

Lawson said his agency is doing its part. State elections officials have ordered at least nine new elections since 2016.

Yet, criminal charges like those in the 9th Congressional District investigation remain a rarity – and are well outside the legal purview of the board.

“We’re not trying to cast blame on anybody,” elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said. “But what can happen if these things are allowed to linger and keep happening without any repercussions, the offenders get more brazen. Things that appear to have happened in Bladen this year will happen.”

And if a local prosecutor declines to bring criminal charges – whatever the reason – the board essentially has no recourse.

“Until something happens to change the culture in those areas, we’re going to continue to have to repeat this conversation over and over again,” Gannon said.

Britt said one potential fix is a change in state law. Legislators could give the authority to prosecute election law violations to the state Attorney General’s Office, or even the Wake County district attorney, where the state elections board is based.

That tactic worked for the 9th District, where Wake County’s district attorney took over the investigation after Bladen County’s top prosecutor recused himself.

“You put it in the hands of the people who are most familiar with it,” Britt said.

Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman with the Attorney General’s Office, noted that district attorneys already have the option of requesting help from the state Department of Justice and that the agency “continues to be happy to work with any DA” who needs assistance.

Other agencies in Raleigh, however, said they support the prospect of consolidating election law prosecutions in a centralized office.

“A special prosecutorial unit for public corruption and elections cases could ensure that experts in election laws and procedures work on these complex cases and result in statewide uniformity in the prosecution of election law violations,” Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said in a statement.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said her office would need more resources if it became the first stop for prosecuting election law violations in other counties. But with the election board right in her backyard, she said it might not be a bad fit.

“There is a certain amount of efficiency and investigative effectiveness to be gained by the District Attorney’s Office in Wake County handling these cases, which are generally initiated by the State Board of Elections,” Freeman said.

At Stephens’ office in Robeson County last week, Laura Sampson took a few moments to think Britt’s proposal over.

As she weighed the possibility, she said the former DA seemed to be “talking out of both sides of his mouth.”

“‘It would be really great if you skipped over us and just sent it there.’ But at the same time, why not recuse yourself? That’s another option,” Sampson said. “But you don’t feel like you have a conflict of interest.”

Her distrust is still there, and she still blames Britt for not seeing what she and Stephens thought was so clear. She has more faith in the new district attorney, Matthew Scott, an Army veteran elected to the role in 2018.

But if issues like hers could bypass local elected officials in the future, she said, it might solve problems in a county that for years has seen issues with the integrity of its elections.

“That would be a fix,” Sampson said. “I like that.”

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