The spotlight on alleged illegal gifts to city officials doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon and could result in criminal charges, a law enforcement source told the Times-News on Thursday.
Even though Lincolnton City Council members voted 3-1 last week to halt an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by City Manager Jeff Emory, a criminal investigation of the same issues involving Emory and others in city government has been ongoing since late last year, the Times-News confirmed in a phone conversation Thursday with the law enforcement source.
In question are claims that surfaced publicly within recent weeks that Emory accepted inappropriate gifts, such as Carolina Panthers football tickets, from at least one city contractor, Pease Engineering and Architecture of Charlotte.
The Times-News can now report for the first time that it turned its own investigation of the same allegations about Emory over to law enforcement in December 2011.
Those accusing Emory late last year did not contact the newspaper directly, but used go-between sources who claimed only second-hand knowledge of the supposed misconduct. As the claims were presented to the Times-News, those behind the accusations cited fears of retaliation and declined to make their identities known, even with the option of the newspaper withholding their names from publication.
During the newspaper’s initial inquiry, legal scholars with the University of North Carolina School of Government told the Times-News that the actions in question weren’t simply inappropriate or unethical under state law, but would constitute felonies on the part of anyone receiving gifts, such as tickets, from a government contractor and misdemeanors on the part of anyone giving such gifts.
Because no one was willing to go on the record, and the newspaper was unwilling to publish unsubstantiated claims that someone had committed a serious crime, the Times-News found that the allegations were appropriate for investigation by law enforcement, which has subpoena power, rather than journalists who have to rely on public records requests, enforceable only through litigation.
With permission from the go-between sources with whom the newspaper was communicating, information about the case was turned over to law enforcement at that time. But until this week, the Times-News had been unaware that a criminal probe resulted and remained under way.
The law enforcement official with whom the newspaper spoke on Wednesday confirmed that at least two agencies are aware of the charges and looking into them with an eye to potential criminal prosecution. According to this source, the scope of their investigation goes beyond just the city manager and includes at least one other high-ranking city employee and one or more City Council members.
The law enforcement source told the newspaper that he expects the inquiry to be slow but thorough with a decision made at the end about whether any criminal charges will be filed.
It’s not clear who recently distributed a mailing with many of the same charges to members of the news media and City Council, bringing the allegations into the public light for the first time. The written materials appear to imply that they come from someone with a private company that also does business with Pease, but this would be difficult to confirm.
The parties sending these materials out did not appear to be aware of the existence of the criminal investigation. There’s been no indication that they have attempted to contact law enforcement about the situation.
The existence of a criminal probe of these claims against Emory and the other city officials doesn’t mean they actually did anything improper or illegal. It’s entirely possible that the criminal inquiry will find the claims unsubstantiated and never take any further action.