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Justice remains obstructed

This newspaper began a series of investigative reports four months ago about the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.
Although several allegations about wrongdoing by the administration had been appearing for weeks on a local Web site, the Lake Norman Bath, the item that made us decide to pursue the story was the issuing of a search warrant by the Sheriff’s Office.
It appeared to be an effort to force the owner of the Web site into the open and thus shut the person down. We had no particular sympathy with this individual. We had no idea who he was at that point. But there was an appearance of impropriety by members of the Sheriff’s Office. So we begin asking questions.
As happened at every turn in what became a wide-ranging series of reports, each question has led to further doubts and more questions.
We hesitate to say Sheriff Tim Daugherty and members of administration have lied, but they have contradicted themselves and the known facts, and have done so at times while speaking on the record to the press or under oath on the witness stand or to a magistrate.
If they have not lied, they have demonstrated a gerat difficulty in recalling facts with which they should be familiar.
After the warrant issue, we began getting information on intimidation of Sheriff’s Office employees who talked to the news media or posted on the Lake Norman Bath. We also wrote about this, printing several memos the sheriff issued in a focus on shutting down criticism instead of trying to fix the problems that were coming to light.
Daugherty and several of his top officers met with us. They offered answers, but some of their statements were at odds with what we already knew to be true. Their attitude was dismissive and arrogant. The public records to which we are entitled under law were being withheld and Daugherty told us he had done this for “leverage.” Amazing.
As for the statements on the Bath site, all of it was lies, the sheriff told us.
The sheriff, however, announced he would be calling in the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the allegations against his office. District Attorney Rick Shaffer confirmed what we had long suspected this week — Daugherty brought up the SBI only after Shaffer had told him he wanted them brought in. Even then, it took Shaffer to write to the SBI formally before anything began moving.
Meanwhile, the Bath posted photos of seized evidence in use at the sheriff’s shooting range, in apparent violation of a court order. We contacted the judge who issued the order and he said he could not comment directly, but said the D.A. was among those who could ask him to look at whether his order was being violated.
This week, we learned that although Shaffer asked the SBI to look into the misuse of the seized evidence, and did find it was inappropriate and possibly criminal, he declined to prosecute on those grounds and he never pushed the issue of whether the court order was being violated.
As time went on, allegation after allegation against the Sheriff’s Office emerged. In nearly every instance, the administration initially labeled the charges as politically motivated and false, only to replace the “false” part of their response with “not illegal” as more information came to light.
Shaffer revealed this week that in the case of the small number of charges he asked the SBI to pursue, he found the alleged actions did occur and were likely illegal, but he has chosen not to prosecute them.
The exception is the case of Chief Deputy Barry Taylor interfering in a friend’s arrest on drunk driving charges.
While the prosecution of Taylor is an encouraging sign that some of the laws of the land will be enforced, at least some of the time, Shaffer has balked at any further prosecution.
Even in the face of multiple allegations that Taylor and others have threatened witnesses who have spoken with the SBI and the press since March, and even though the very nature of the charge against Taylor, obstruction, suggests a tendency to use his position to interfere with the workings of justice, the sheriff intends to let the chief deputy remain in office and Shaffer offers no indication of preventing this.
For those who had the courage to speak to the SBI, this is an act of unforgivable betrayal. They are left hanging, their jobs existing “at the pleasure” of a sheriff who has embraced an accused felon on whom they have reported. They are now surrounded by other officers who have clearly engaged in a pattern of criminal behavior, even if the D.A. has decided those crimes are not worth prosecuting.
A reasonable approach might have been to tell these petty criminals they faced prosecution if they did not resign in disgrace from the Sheriff’s Office. Maybe they shouldn’t go to jail. But they certainly shouldn’t continue to be in law enforcement and they should have been decertified. The D.A. didn’t even go that far.
If this is the system we have, then the laws of the state of North Carolina are a joke and not worth the paper on which they are written. We will not even protect the honest men and women in law enforcement when they do their duty and report on corruption.
Many wiser sheriffs whose administrations have been found with far lesser levels of wrongdoing have done the right thing and suspended those charged with misconduct. Many such sheriffs have decided their continued presence in office is no longer beneficial to the people, and have resigned.
Daugherty remains defiant, so we do not expect to see this happen.
One of the powers the state of North Carolina gives to the district attorney is the power to remove the sheriff from office.
There is not a requirement that the sheriff actually be prosecuted for anything to be removed, but simply that he is not properly carrying out his duties.
If the sheriff will not do the right thing and suspend his chief, then Shaffer needs to redeem himself for his surprisingly limited response to the SBI’s report, and make the tough political decision — take Daugherty out of the equation, at least until the chief deputy’s fate is determined.
Shaffer boasted before the news media Tuesday that he is taking the politically tough road of handling the prosecution of Chief Deputy Barry Taylor through his office. Sorry if we are underwhelmed, District Attorney.
We hope that the D.A. is not under the illusion that the news media will lose interest now. If anything, his cryptic handling of this situation has ensured their attention.
Forget about whether what you are doing is politically tough or easy and stop resting on your career laurels, as honorable as they are.
Do what is right.
Frank Taylor is managing editor of the Lincoln Times-News.
by Frank Taylor

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