Alleged lawbreaking, impropriety and fraud undermine confidence in Forsyth elections
The Forsyth County Board of Elections will hold an open hearing on Feb. 7 to consider alleged election law violations.
Earline Parmon, a Democrat who represents District 72 in the NC House, came in near the end of a hearing by the Forsyth County Board of Election in mid-December, and took a seat near Jimmie Bonham, a political ally who had lost a bid for a seat on the school board.
The hearing had been held to consider a protest filed by Jeff Polston, the Republican candidate for clerk of superior court. Another Parmon ally, Susan Speaks Frye, had knocked off incumbent Nick Gordon in the Democratic primary in a surprise win. Polston had not been without liabilities, having been accused of fraud in a past bankruptcy proceeding. But he came within 1 percentage point of Frye, qualifying for a recount. The hearing attracted such a large crowd that the proceedings had to be moved to a larger room on the fourth floor of the Forsyth County Government Center. Another Parmon ally observing the proceedings was Everette Witherspoon, who, like Frye, had managed to best an incumbent with better name recognition during the Democratic primary. Thanks to the win, Witherspoon is now a Forsyth County commissioner.
Parmon pulled out a book, an account of the labor struggles of tobacco workers in Winston-Salem more than a half-century ago, and thumbed through it, pointing out a passage of text to Bonham. Then the board voted to certify Frye’s election so she could be immediately sworn in as clerk of superior court, and adjourned the meeting. Parmon turned to Bonham.
“What just happened?” she asked. As it turned out, the board’s vote to certify Frye’s election was a violation of election law, in the view of the State Board of Elections in Raleigh, because the decision did not allow time for Polston to file an appeal.
“In December 2010, the Forsyth County Board of Elections prematurely issued a certificate of election to a candidate immediately after an election protest was dismissed,” State Board of Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett told YES! Weekly in a written statement. “Subsequently, the certificate was timely issued and the candidate was sworn into office.”
On Feb. 7, the Forsyth County Board of Elections will hold an open hearing to consider alleged election law violations. The allegations center on Elections Director Rob Coffman, but also include other employees. Coffman and his office have been under investigation by the local board since Jan. 21. A number of former employees, including Terry Cox and Pamela Johnson, have received written invitations to appear before the board.
Frank Dickerson, a Democratic member, said the board has undertaken the investigation almost out of a sense of frustration because allegations continue to mount despite what he considers the board’s due diligence in addressing them as they arise.
“I want to make sure there’s nothing intentional or systemic,” he said. “Should there not be, then we can put this to rest. Hopefully, we can put this to rest. It’s important to me and others on the board that people have confidence in the fairness and openness of elections. From everything I’ve heard, the staff does a very good job.”
Johnson said the server for the Unity Election System, which formats ballots layouts, programs election equipment and tabulates results, among other functions, was networked from 2006 to 2009.
“When they detected that in September of 2009, there may not have been at that time,” she said, “but those servers were networked during the 2008 general and primary, and the 2007 general and primary.”
Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said Coffman had remotely accessed the Unity system during an out-of-town conference. Staff instructed him to discontinue the practice, and it has not been a recurring problem. Although the state board frowned upon the practice, it was not illegal.
Cox and Johnson said they were directed by Coffman to approve voter registrations that lacked signatures or check-offs on questions about the applicant’s citizenship and felony status. They said they complied out of fear that they would lose their jobs.
“It did not happen,” Coffman told YES! Weekly in December. “There’s never been an instance where I’ve ordered a registration to be altered.”
Jordan called the allegation “old news,” and said it had been addressed.
“When our staff questioned them, they did not recall how many or what,” Bartlett said. “It’s sort of like an accusation that’s out there and that’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Cox, Johnson and another former employee, William D. Clarke, said they were also ordered by Coffman to process registrations during early voting in 2008 in which the applications were missing entirely.
Bartlett said he was not aware of the allegation.
Cast of characters
Sam Attallah Former campaign manager for Earline Parmon
Beaufort Bailey Former Democratic Forsyth County commissioner who was defeated in the 2010 primary by Everette Witherspoon
Gary Bartlett Executive director of State Board of Elections
Jimmie Bonham Unsuccessful candidate for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board in District 1 and ally of Rep. Earline Parmon
Pat Boyles Temporary worker at Forsyth County Board of Elections
William D. Clarke Former employee of Forsyth County Board of Elections
In light of concerns later expressed by former employees about cutting corners on the processing of voter registrations during the groundswell presidential election year of 2008, it could be considered an irony that the State Board of Elections’ concern was exactly opposite. While employees worried that the integrity of the registration process had been compromised, the Democratic-dominated state board wanted to ensure at all costs that every person be able to vote that wanted to. Bartlett told YES! Weekly in a written statement that “in 2008, the Forsyth County Board of Elections failed to meet at the direction of the State Board of Elections as to considering extending the hours of one-stop absentee voting,” characterizing the local board’s defiance as a violation of election law. Subsequently, the state board turned down Democrat Eric Elliott for reappointment to the local board based in part on that episode, according to Dickerson, who replaced Elliott.
The Forsyth County Board of Elections will hold a hearing on Feb. 7 to investigate alleged election law violations under the leadership of director Rob Coffman (left).
Most of the allegations of misconduct or impropriety center on the 2009 municipal election and the 2010 primary. In 2009, a 19-yearold Winston-Salem State University student named Derwin Montgomery swamped incumbent Joycelyn Johnson in the Democratic primary for the East Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council. Based on strong turnout by fellow students in early voting, Montgomery racked up 530 votes, compared to 228 by Johnson. With no Republican opposition in the general election for the heavily Democratic ward, Montgomery’s primary win assured him a seat on council.
An observation by Cox of the behavior of a fellow employee and a candidate at an earlyvoting site at the Forsyth County Government Center raises suspicions that they might have been encouraging and enabling voter fraud.
“There was a young woman who Derwin Montgomery was accompanying,” Cox said. “One of the workers, Yoko Odom, was processing this woman. Ms. Odom made the comment to this woman that she knew what she was doing. She was inferring that she was giving the university as her permanent address so she would be able to vote for Derwin Montgomery.”
Cox said he told the woman: “If you put down that Winston-Salem State University is your permanent address then you’re saying that is where you sleep at night, and if you don’t do that, that is against the law.”
Cox said the woman looked to Montgomery, then to Odom, as if seeking direction or reassurance.
“That’s your choice,” Cox said he told the woman. “You’re responsible for what you do. If you lie, you are creating an offense.”
Cox said he walked away, and could hear the woman tearing up her application. PJ Lofland, a seasonal employee, said she witnessed the incident.
Montgomery did not respond to efforts to reach him for this story, and Odom could not be reached for comment. Larry Little, a professor and political advisor, denied that the campaign encouraged students to vote in Montgomery’s race who were ineligible to do so.
“We have 2,000 who live on the campus, and we only got 500 to vote,” Little said. “The first thing we asked is, ‘Where do you live?’ Some of them live right around campus on these side streets. They’re in the East Ward.”
Jordan and Dickerson said they had not heard the allegation.
“One thing that should come out of this is a discussion with employees to say, ‘If you see this, let us know,’” Dickerson said.
One student who voted for Montgomery has since admitted that he was ineligible to vote in the East Ward. Christopher Mickens rode to the polls during early voting after seeing Montgomery campaign in one of his classes.
“We were all driven to the polls, and handed poll workers our voter registration cards,” Mickens said in a signed statement. “Although at the time I was living at 5100 Ambercrest Drive Apt. B1 in the Northeast Ward, I cast a vote for Derwin for councilman in the East Ward, registered under my old campus address. I am pretty sure I was not the only student who done this…. There was no way poll workers were able to cross-check our reg istered address with our current ones because there was a lack of a student campus roster.”
At the time he registered to vote in 2008, Mickens lived on campus. As a native of Greensboro, he said he was not aware of the layout of wards in Winston-Salem and didn’t realize he should update his voter registration. He maintains that his 2009 vote in the East Ward was inadvertent.
The North Carolina statute on voting procedures holds that when a person seeking to vote enters a voting place, “a precinct official assigned to check registration shall at once ask the voter to state current name and residence address. The voter shall answer by stating current name and residence address.”
Mickens said he never personally overheard Montgomery suggest to students that they falsify their registrations in order to vote for him.
During the primary, suspicion also gathered around students registering and voting on the same day through one-stop voting. Joycelyn Johnson questioned whether “WSSU student may have been wrongly assisted with one-stop registration by the school officials,” according to official board minutes.
“We verified that all these people were eligible to vote,” Dickerson said. “We went back to [the university] and got the student register and made sure that these people were residents on campus.”
Cast of characters
Rob Coffman Forsyth County elections director since 2006
Terry Cox Former Forsyth County Board of Elections employee who retired in 2010
James Dalton Indiana elections consultant hired by Forsyth County Board of Elections in 2008
Frank Dickerson Democratic member of Forsyth County Board of Elections
Eric Elliott Former Democratic chairman of Forsyth County Board of Elections
usan Speaks Frye Democratic Forsyth County clerk of superior court who unseated incumbent Nick Gordon in the 2010 primary
Nick Gordon Former Forsyth County clerk of superior court who lost the 2010 Democratic primary to Susan Speaks Frye
Arthur Hardin Retention counselor at Winston-Salem State University who responded to Forsyth County Board of Elections request for verification of students’ residency during 2009 primary
Arthur Hardin, a retention counselor at the university who responded to the board of elections’ request, declined to comment on the methodology used to cross-check the voter registrations against the campus housing roster, instead issuing a prepared statement.
“In September 2009, the university’s housing office was again asked to verify the list of students who had registered to vote following a complaint received by the board of elections,” he said. “All but two of those names were verified as living in on-campus housing. The BOE indicated that they removed those two students from the registered voters list and removed their corresponding ballots from the elections returns.”
During early voting before the 2009 general election, Lofland said she was ordered by Deputy Director Lamar Joyner to allow a woman who indicated that her current residence was in Walkertown to vote in the Winston-Salem election.
Lofland said when the woman gave her name, she did not find her right away in the database, so the woman pulled out a driver’s license and handed it to her. By that time, Lofland had found the woman on the rolls. She said she did a double take when she saw that the driver’s license listed a Walkertown address, and asked the woman if it was her correct address. The woman said it was, according to Lofland’s account, adding that she had moved from Winston-Salem to Walkertown seven months earlier. Lofland said she told the woman she was not eligible to vote in the Winston-Salem election. At that point, the woman reportedly produced another driver’s license bearing the old address in Winston-Salem and said that she still stayed there sometimes. Lofland informed the woman that the new ID invalidated the older one.
Lofland said Joyner overruled her protest and ordered her to let the woman vote a regular ballot in the Winston-Salem election.
“I was absolutely being directed to break the law,” Lofland said. “Mr. Joyner knew he was breaking the law, but he did it anyway.”
Joyner, who remains employed with the board of elections, declined to comment on the incident.
That night, Lofland drafted a letter to the State Board of Elections, laying that incident and a number of others out in detail.
“Please do not use my name in association with this investigation unless it become legally necessary,” Lofland wrote in the Oct. 14, 2009 letter. “If it does, then you can count on me to do whatever is necessary to end the abuse in that office. In the meantime I need the money that I make there desperately right now.
“If nothing comes of this but my losing my job I will know why and where it came from,” she added. “Please do not disappoint me after I have gone out on a limb for you.”
Later Lofland said she spoke with investigator Marshall Tutor and general counsel Don Wright about the matter. Lofland said she received assurances that her statement would not be shared publicly. Soon after, she learned she would not be invited back to work, Lofland said she confronted Wright, and he acknowledged sharing her statement with Coffman and Linda Sutton, the Democratic chair of the Forsyth Board of Elections.
Jordan, the Republican member, said he doesn’t condone retaliation.
“It wouldn’t sit well with me if this person came forward and said, ‘This is what happened and this is why it’s wrong and this is how I know it’ — it wouldn’t sit well with me to know they were fired,” he said.
Bartlett confirmed that the state board received the letter and said his staff has received assurances that the Forsyth County Board of Elections has looked into Lofland’s allegation and addressed it.
Sutton said she is certain that the other two board members saw the letter and that they discussed it. She said she did address the issue with Coffman and Joyner, but could not recall exactly how they dealt with it.
Jordan said if what Lofland alleged really happened, then it shouldn’t have.
“The first time I’ve heard about it? Right now,” he said in an interview last week. “They need to tell me about it so I can make some corrective measures. If she had told me about it at that time, I would have went right down there to correct it.”
“I don’t recall this either,” Dickerson said, adding that the board will look into it next week.
Following the general election of 2009, a new development at the Forsyth County Board of Elections would raise additional doubts about the legitimacy of the Democratic primary for the East Ward seat, despite the assurances given by the university that the vast majority of students who registered in early voting were campus residents.
“Mr. Coffman informed the board of a large mailing of voter registration cards that had returned from WSSU,” official board minutes from December 2009 read. “The cards were returned a few months later than the usual amount of time. It was unsure [sic] whether the unnecessary delay occurred with the WSSU post office or the Greensboro post office.”
Pamela Johnson said the circumstances for such a situation are limited.
“The only time a voter card is sent out is if you have a new registration, if your precinct changes, if the voter district changes, or if you update your voter registration,” she said. “When someone registers to vote, the voter card is sent out within 48 hours to allow time for the voter card to be returned if the address is not valid. If that voter card is returned as undeliverable — that they don’t live there — then that vote can be removed since the voter’s residence cannot be verified.”
Rebecca S. Pope, who is currently employed at the Forsyth elections office, indicated in a handwritten affidavit obtained by YES! Weekly that returned voter registration cards matched votes cast in the recent election.
“In 2009 we processed a large number of returned voter cards from Winston-Salem State University,” she said in the affidavit. “These cards should have been returned months earlier. Since they were [returned] after the election results were official, the impact of illegal votes were disregarded. Because of the untimeliness [of] the return of the voter cards the voters are verified and in the system as legal voters instead of them being removed.”
Coffman told YES! Weekly in December that the cards were returned as a result of a statemandated, list-maintenance program, which requires local boards of elections to send out confirmation cards by April 15 of every oddnumbered year.
Johnson disputed Coffman’s explanation as implausible. Rather, she said, the cards would have had to have been sent out in response to new registrations during the 2009 election, as indicated by Pope’s affidavit. Pope declined to comment on the record for this story.
In addition to the matter of whether Winston-Salem State University students’ votes were illegitimate, Pope’s statement also leaves ambiguity about whether the returned cards were retained on registration records and verified as active voters or additional steps were taken to determine their status as part of the process set out by statute to remove voters whose residency cannot be confirmed. It also remains unclear how many cards were returned and to what extent they might have cut into Montgomery’s 302-vote margin of victory.
“I will check to see whether we followed the proper procedure on the cards,” Dickerson pledged.
Pamela Johnson had been fired in May 2009 from the Forsyth elections office. That summer, she contacted Don Wright, the general counsel for the State Board of Elections, about the circumstances surrounding her firing. By the spring of 2010, she was still unemployed and arranged to do some work for Earline Parmon. She took the opportunity to share her concerns about alleged impropriety at the board of elections with Parmon.
While working for Parmon, Johnson learned of an alliance of Democratic candidates surrounding Parmon. Johnson said Sam Attallah, Parmon’s campaign manager at the time, asked her to do some research for Susan Speaks Frye, the candidate for clerk of superior court. Frye acknowledged to YES! Weekly that she had been part of a “coordinated effort with Ms. Parmon.” Johnson would also see Jimmie Bonham and Everette Witherspoon around Parmon’s office at the Golden State Mutual Life building on East 5 th Street in Winston-Salem. At the time, Johnson said she was told to be discrete about the fact that she was working on Frye’s campaign, presumably to preserve an element of surprise and to prevent animosities against individual candidates from tainting the batch.
Deena Head Former temporary worker at Forsyth County Board of Elections allegedly disparaged as a “crack ho” by Rob Coffman
Gardenia Henley Unsuccessful candidate for the NC House District 72 seat held by Rep. Earline Parmon, and retired State Department employee who investigated voter fraud in the 2010 primary
Constance Johnson Wife of school board member Vic Johnson
Joycelyn Johnson Former Winston-Salem city councilwoman who lost her seat to Derwin Montgomery in the 2009 primary
Pamela Johnson Former Forsyth County Board of Elections employee who was fired in 2009
Vic Johnson Winston-Salem/Forsyth School Board member in District 1
Jerry Jordan Republican member of Forsyth County Board of Elections
Lamar Joyner Deputy director at Forsyth County Board of Elections
The alliance would later manifest in a sample ballot listing endorsements from a dozen “concerned black pastors” in support of the following candidates: Parmon for NC House, Frye for clerk of superior court, Bonham for school board in District 1, Everette Witherspoon and Walter Marshall for county commission in District A, along with Ken Lewis for US Senate and Linda Garrou for NC Senate.
Frye and Witherspoon, challengers both, would emerge from the Democratic primary victorious, and Bonham would clear the nonpartisan primary for school board District 1, an urban district designed to allow African- American candidates to compete for representation.
Turnout is typically low in mid-term primaries, and voters tend to be unfamiliar with candidates’ names in down-ballot races such as county commissioner, clerk of superior court and school board. Predictably, turnout in the 2010 primary in Forsyth County registered at 12.1 percent, compared to 75.6 percent in the 2008 presidential election featuring Barack Obama and John McCain in the marquee spot.
In low-turnout elections, a hundred votes or less can sometimes make the difference between winning and losing. Such circumstances might seem ripe for fraud, but they also present an opportunity for candidates with low name recognition to overcome the advantages of incumbency by outworking and outorganizing their opponents. Parmon and Frye’s campaigns took advantage of early voting to mobilize supporters and make sure undecided voters knew their names before casting their ballots. They drove people to the polls and gave away campaign T-shirts. Bonham, for one, even escorted voters into the voting booth and assisted them. Campaign workers handed out sample ballots with the names of candidates who were part of the Parmon slate at early voting. All of those tactics in and of themselves are legal within certain bounds.
But incumbent Democratic candidates who were not part of the alliance such as County Commissioner Beaufort Bailey and school board member Vic Johnson took offense at the alliance’s hard-driving campaign tactics, and the primary produced a schism within the local Democratic Party.
The conduct of battle within the Democratic Party has also created fissures within the local Republican Party.
Constance Johnson, wife of Vic Johnson, complained to the Forsyth County Board of Elections that Parmon and Frye supporters, along with Bonham, were improperly assisting voters who were elderly, frail or had some disability that prevented them from operating the voting machines. Under state law, voters may request assistance from a person of their choice, including a candidate.
David Regnery, a Republican voter, wit nessed a dispute between Vic Johnson and Jimmie Bonham over whether Bonham’s conduct was proper at the early voting site at the Forsyth County Board of Election on the last Sunday in April. Regnery drafted a memo the next day to Bartlett, the executive director at the State Board of Elections, to express his concern.
On April 27, the Johnsons addressed their concerns to the Forsyth County Board of Elections. Jeannie Metcalf, a Republican member on the nonpartisan school board, showed up at the end of the meeting to support her colleague.
In a later e-mail to Vic Johnson, Metcalf detailed an incident alleged to have taken place in the meeting room after the adjournment of the April 27 meeting. She said Coffman and Jerry Jordan, the Republican member of the board, were laughing as they discussed a document that turned out to be Regnery’s letter to the State Board of Elections. When Coffman and Jordan noticed Metcalf, she said they stopped laughing. She recalled telling them that she was there “to support my friend, Vic Johnson.”
“He needs all the help he can get,” Coffman is reported to have said in response.
“I don’t recall discussing any document with Rob, and laughing about it,” Jordan told YES! Weekly recently. “I don’t know what
Jeannie said. Anybody that writes to the board about some irregularity that took place, I take seriously.”
Another event that same week would cast a shadow over the 2010 primary.
On April 29, a Friday, election worker Pat Boyles spotted a woman coming out of the voting booth. Her name was Virginia Robertson Lee, and she lives in public housing at Sunrise Towers. That Lee was wearing a long-sleeved hoodie-style sweatshirt struck Boyles as odd considering that it was the warm season in late April. He suddenly realized that he had seen her before. He had helped her change her name on her voter registration earlier that day and watched her vote.
As a result, Lee’s second ballot was canceled. Coffman said that later that night the state’s computerized system flagged her name as a duplicate, so she would have been caught even without Boyles’ sharp eye.
The incident was of sufficient concern to the State Board of Elections that the agency sent its sole investigator, Marshall Tutor, to Winston-Salem to interview Lee. Tutor completed his investigation, and turned over his findings to Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill for possible prosecution.
Cast of characters
Virginia Robertson Lee Winston-Salem woman caught voting twice in 2010 primary
Larry Little Winston-Salem State University professor and advisor to Derwin Montgomery’s campaign for city council
PJ Lofland Former temporary worker who told the State Board of Elections she was ordered by supervisors at the Forsyth County Board of Elections to allow a woman to commit voter fraud during the 2009 general election
Walter Marshall Democratic Forsyth County commissioner in District A
Jeannie Metcalf At-large member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board
Christopher Mickens Former Winston-Salem State University student who has admitted to voting illegally in the 2009 primary
Derwin Montgomery Winston-Salem city councilman who defeated incumbent Joycelyn Johnson as 19-year-old Winston-Salem State University student
Tutor said intent matters in determining whether to go forward with a prosecution, and he wasn’t at all certain that Lee realized that she was breaking the law. He also could not determine whether someone else put Lee up to voting twice or paid her for her vote.
“I didn’t uncover any names of people who were attempting to buy votes,” Tutor said. “And I tried.”
Lee declined to speak to YES! Weekly about the incident.
An unpaid, volunteer investigator has apparently made more headway in the case than anyone else.
Gardenia Henley had managed Winston- Salem Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke’s reelection campaign in 2009. The following year she decided to challenge Parmon for the District 72 seat in the NC House on a platform of eliminating government fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. To most local political observers, Henley’s decisive primary loss to Parmon came as little surprise considering the candidate’s lack of political experience and name recognition.
As a retired inspector general for the US State Department, Henley applied her skills to the allegations of election fraud in Forsyth County. She interviewed Lee on July 31 at her apartment at Sunrise Towers.
Lee mentioned Susan Speaks Frye’s name to Henley. She also mentioned two other individuals named “Bondsman” and “Theodore.”
Through a series of questions, Henley ascertained that Lee had been first approached by Everette Witherspoon, who allegedly paid her with a quart of beer and three cigarettes for her vote. Then, Henley concluded, Frye and Jimmie Bonham came to her apartment, and Bonham rolled two dollars up in a Frye campaign T-shirt and handed it to Lee. Lee said at least one other woman was paid in the same fashion.
“They didn’t take us up together,” Lee told Henley. “They took us up one at a time. I thought that was strange.”
Lee added that the man she called “Bondsman” accompanied her into the early voting site at the Forsyth County Government Center and selected candidates for her, overriding her protestations.
“Voting two times in the same election is against the law,” Tutor said, “and giving or receiving anything of value for a vote is a felony.”
Boyles, who spotted Lee the second time she voted, said he knew Bonham by sight because other election workers had pointed him out, but could not say for certain whether he was with Lee.
Henley had photocopied the three candidates’ campaign literature, and showed the copies to Lee during a second visit on Aug. 1.
Lee expressed recognition when presented with the image of Witherspoon. She narrated aloud as she wrote on the margin of the photocopy: “This is Everette Witherspoon, who I talked to the day I voted on April 29. Virginia Robertson Lee. He gave me one quart of beer 3 cigarettes to vote. VRL 8/1/10.”
Witherspoon denied the allegation, calling it “ridiculous.”
On the margin of a photocopy of Bonham’s campaign literature, Lee wrote: “This is Jimmie Lee Bonham, who I talked to on the day I voted, April 29, 2010. While we were voting, he punched in who he wanted to win. I didn’t push anything. Virginia Robertson Lee. VRL 8/1/10.”
Bonham also denied the allegation, stating that he doesn’t know Lee.
On the photocopy of Frye’s campaign literature, Lee wrote, “This is Susan Frye, who I talked to on the day I voted, April 29, 2010. They gave me two dollars and a T-shirt Susan Frye and Jimmie Bonham to vote VRL 8/1/10.”
Frye, who now serves as clerk of superior court for Forsyth County, acknowledged that her campaign gave voters rides to the polls and giving away campaign T-shirts, but denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations “discouraging.”
“I gave T-shirts out to anyone who wanted one,” she said. “That was advertisement for my campaign. That wasn’t in exchange for anyone’s vote. Lots of people got T-shirts.”
Tutor acknowledged the limitations of his capacity as an investigator.
“I am the only investigator for 100 counties for the board of elections,” he said. “I am overwhelmed, to put it bluntly and truthfully. I, we, the board of elections does not have the resources to do all that we want to do. I can only be in one place at a time. I am inundated. There is no other word for it.”
Henley said she provided the names of the candidates who allegedly enlisted Lee to vote twice allegedly paid her for her vote to
Bartlett, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, and to Larry Leake, chairman of the state board.
“The information she shared is information we already had,” Bartlett said, adding that he would not comment further because the case has been turned over to the district attorney.
“We’re not going to do anything to chill what the district attorney does,” he said.
Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the NC Justice Department, said the State Bureau of Investigation followed up on some information provided to the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office last fall related to allegations of voter fraud. District Attorney Jim O’Neill did not return calls for this story.
“If this lady voted twice, I want her prosecuted,” said Jordan, the Republican member of the Forsyth County Board of Elections. “And if anyone else helped her vote twice, I want them prosecuted. That kind of conduct has no place in our elections. I thought we got past that years ago, but apparently not.”
When the votes were tabulated, Frye had upset incumbent Nick Gordon, Bonham had made the cut in the nonpartisan school board race and Witherspoon had squeaked past incumbent Beaufort Bailey in Democratic primary for county commission in District A. The district is allocated two seats, and the first one went to Walter Marshall, the top votegetter.
Marshall said he believes allegations of fraud are unfounded.
“He [Witherspoon] won because my colleague didn’t campaign,” Marshall said.
“Beaufort won election day, but he didn’t win early voting, and he couldn’t make it up. He didn’t campaign. I tried to get him to, but he wouldn’t. I had people handing out literature in early voting. He didn’t.
“From the last two elections, people are looking at early voting because of what Derwin and Everette did,” Marshall added. “They got people out in early voting. Now henceforth you can bet that people are going to be taking early voting seriously. That was an awakening call. Beaufort won on election day and Joycelyn won on election day, but they lost in early voting and couldn’t make it up.”
On the morning after the primary election at 8:30 a.m. Bonham turned up on Vic and
Constance Johnson’s doorstep. Constance Johnson said in a signed statement given to Gardenia Henley that Bonham had wanted to extend the olive branch. Both candidates had cleared the primary and would be campaigning for the two District A seats in the general election. Bonham reportedly offered his congratulations, and said he intended to win one of the seats, but did not consider himself to be Vic Johnson’s adversary.
“As the conversation progressed,” Constance Johnson wrote, “he told my husband and me that Rob Coffman was the only person at the Forsyth County Board of Elections that knew how to operate the voting machines and that Rob could throw an election if he wanted to. He said that Rob Coffman decided which inappropriate completed absentee ballots he would count and which ones he would disallow.”
Constance Johnson added, “His departing remarks were, ‘It’s going to happen.’ I interpreted that to mean that he was going to win the seat.”
For whatever reason, Bonham did not end up winning a seat in the general election. The current representatives on the school board for District 1 are Vic Johnson and Geneva Brown.
Asked about the reported remark, Bonham gave contradictory statements, but initially said, “It was a former employee who used to work there. What I would suggest is that you speak to her. I was just echoing what she had stated to me.”
Bonham sidestepped questions about the implication of an allegation that he expressed confidence in his ability to win his race in conjunction with sharing information about supposed insider election fraud. Pamela Johnson said that, in fact, Bonham did hear from her about allegations of election law violations because Parmon allowed him to stay in the room when Johnson outlined her concerns two months earlier.
Johnson said she had told Parmon and Bonham that during the 2008 election she and fellow employee Judy Speas would spend about four or five hours at a time opening absentee ballots and sorting them by precinct. This meets the definition of “processing,” and is allowable under state law.
Jim O’Neill Republican Forsyth County district attorney
Yoko Odom Temporary worker hired by the Forsyth County Board of Elections who has been accused of helping Winston-Salem State University students commit voter fraud
Earline Parmon Democrat who represents District 72 in the NC House
Jeff Polston Republican candidate for Forsyth County clerk of superior court who lost his 2010 general election race to Democrat Susan Speaks Frye
Rebecca S. Pope Current employee at Forsyth County Board of Elections
David Regnery Forsyth County Republican activist
Judy Speas Current employee at Forsyth County Board of Elections
Linda Sutton Democratic chair of Forsyth County Board of Elections
Marshall Tutor Sole investigator for State Board of Elections
Coffman would periodically go across the hall to a storage room to count absentee ballots on what is called a fast-card reader, Johnson said. Under no circumstances, she said, is it allowable under state law for any member of staff to operate the fast-card reader without the presence of members of the board of elections.
“We have been told that that is a lie,” Bartlett said. “And that comes from the chairman of the Forsyth board…. She says the board has acted on the absentee ballots as they should.”
Jordan echoed Bartlett’s statement. “To my knowledge, that didn’t take place,” he said. “In 2008, I don’t recall those being counted without us being there. I just don’t think it’s true.”
If what Johnson said is true, Bartlett acknowledged that the act would be a violation of state election law.
“The potential for fraud is there because if you’re not being watched,” Johnson said, “you can do whatever you want to.”
Johnson said that Coffman had demonstrated for the board how if an absentee ballot were insufficiently marked the machine would stop. In that case, the operator could darken the bubble so that the machine would accept the ballot. Alternately, an operator could mark the ballot for two candidates seeking the same seat so that the first vote would be canceled, destroy or set aside the deficient ballot or fill out blank absentee ballots from the supply in the storage room.
At the time of the 2010 primary, Rebecca VanderKlok had been promoted to absentee ballot coordinator.
VanderKlok told YES! Weekly that she and Coffman ran absentee ballots through a counting machine outside of the presence of members of the county board of elections, in violation of state law.
“In my heart, I do not believe Rob would tamper with the ballots,” she said.
In October, VanderKlok abruptly resigned from the board of elections over what she called “continuous negative comments” by Coffman.
Last month, Don Wright, the top lawyer for the State Board of Elections, traveled from Raleigh to meet VanderKlok at the Clemmons Branch Library. For the most part, they discussed a string of improper comments alleged to have been made by Coffman and the work environment at the Forsyth elections office. Then suddenly, VanderKlok brought up the counting of the absentee ballots.
“The elections violations, like… the absentee ballots — from the time I’ve worked there, there’s never been a board member present when they were counted,” VanderKlok said. “Address that for me, please.”
Wright stated the requirements of the law. “Absentee ballots can be processed,” he said, “but they are counted by the board in an open session.”
VanderKlok said that board members did not count absentee ballots until the morning after her resignation, adding that the absentee ballots had been opened two days before the board saw them.
That was the extent of the conversation.
Wright did not volunteer a response, and VanderKlok let the subject drop.
“It needs to come before the county board of elections and get that established,” Wright said when questioned about his exchanged with VanderKlok. “And, of course, we’d be interested in the findings.”
Bartlett said the state doesn’t have enough information to know what’s going on, adding, “Some of this stuff is so unreal that you’re wondering why they have not come forward.”
Jordan also expressed astonishment at the allegation.
“If something was done before or after the meeting, I don’t know,” he said. “Ms. VanderKlok has never said that to me, that I’m aware of, or the board. It’s amazing that all this stuff took place, and we’re only now hearing about it.”
The one inappropriate remark by Coffman that has been officially confirmed was made to a temporary employee named Deena Head, who was performing data entry for the board of elections in 2008. Many others have been alleged.
Coffman introduced Head to James Dalton, an elections consultant from Indiana.
“This is Deena,” Coffman is reported to have said. “She is on loan to us from the jail. She is a crack ho. And she actually does great work.” Terry Cox said he overheard the remark.
Head said she was stunned by the remark, and asked Coffman why he would say such a thing. She said he didn’t answer but continued to laugh, along with Dalton and the others. She went back to her desk. Another employee came by to ask her if she was alright. She got up and left because she was so upset.
Coffman said he was ordered to undergo sensitivity training because of the remark.
Pamela Johnson said she believes Coffman fired her for reporting the “crack ho” statement to human resources, and because she had reported other alleged improprieties to Jordan. In fact, she had not gone to human resources about Head’s situation, but instead suggested she call Sutton.
Head said in a statement written in October 2009 that Coffman joined her in a conference room about a week after the remark had been made and confronted her about her response to the episode.
“He stated to me that ‘things are on the line,’” Head wrote. “He did not elaborate on what he meant by that. He started talking about office gossip and how they are always talking and justifying why they cannot get their job done. He said, ‘I should have taken care of Pam Johnson before now, but that is my fault for not doing something about it before now.’ (Why this statement was made to me is beyond me. It was totally irrelevant to what he said to me.)” Cox ended up leaving the board of elections in late 2009, about six months after Johnson. Cox said Coffman made it impossible for him to continue.
“Mr. Coffman continued to pile more work on me and more work on me,” Cox told YES! Weekly. “Mr. Coffman knew that I had a visual impairment. He also knew that I’d been diabetic for 44 years. He liked to intimidate people. He would ask with other people listening, could I put my head up closer to the screen?” Cox went on medical leave on Sept. 29, 2009.
“He was going around saying that I was a faggot, and I was out on sick leave having a sex change,” Cox said. “It just got to the point that I started realizing the stress that Mr. Coffman was putting on my health. I talked to my doctor, and he agreed it would be a good idea for me to take early retirement. It was and, I suspect, it probably is a bad situation.”
Cast of characters
Rebecca VanderKlok Former absentee ballot coordinator at Forsyth County Board of Elections who resigned in 2010
Everette Witherspoon Democratic Forsyth County commissioner, who defeated incumbent Beaufort Bailey in the 2010 primary
Don Wright General counsel for State Board of Elections
Cox officially retired on March 1, 2010.
In early December, Sutton agreed to meet Henley, the former State Department employee, Henley brought up the circumstances of Cox’s separation from the board of elections. Sutton interrupted, finishing Henley’s sentence: “Because he knew too much.”
The county board of elections, according to state law, is responsible for investigating irregularities, nonperformance of duties, and violations of laws by election officers and other persons.
“The hostile work environment issues were expressed to Linda Sutton, chair of the board of elections by myself, Pamela Johnson, and Terry Cox,” Johsnon said in an affidavit. “She was informed of Rob Coffman’s reference to an African American as a ‘local crack ho,’ as well as Rob Coffman calling staff by derogatory names such as ‘dykes’ and ‘faggots.’ She was informed by myself about Rob’s misappropriation of county funds. Linda Sutton stated in a closed-session meeting with the board that she asked for Rob Coffman’s resignation, but that the other two board members would not back her up.”
Henley read aloud from the affidavit to Sutton in December.
“I didn’t want them to go back and tell that I told what happened during a closed session, for one thing; I wasn’t supposed to discuss that,” Sutton told Henley. “I was trying to work with them to try to, you know, let them know that I was trying to do something to help them out.”
After complaining to Sutton about Coffman’s remark, Head said she was not invited to come back to work during election seasons in 2009 and 2010, with the exception of working as a chief precinct judge on election day. PJ Lofland also found that her services were not needed after she complained to the State Board of Elections about Lamar Joyner ordering her to allow an ineligible voter to vote.
“That’s one thing the county doesn’t tolerate,” Commissioner Walter Marshall said.
“Nobody in Forsyth County would lose their job for telling the truth. You don’t lose your job for being a whistleblower.”
Head said she spoke at length with Marshall about her situation in February 2009.
“He told me that I definitely had a case,” she told YES! Weekly, “but if I were to pursue this further that it would end all opportunities for me to work for the county.”
Marshall acknowledged that he was familiar with Head’s situation, but said, “No, I didn’t tell her that.”
Sutton acknowledged in an interview on Sunday that employees have told the local board that Coffman has “a loose tongue.”
Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, put it another way.
“Rob admits he’s a jerk, too, if you confront him,” Wright told VanderKlok. “I said, ‘Rob, you’ve said so many stupid things at the most stupid times.’ I’ve told him that. He’s said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Can’t you control your mouth?’ He said, ‘I have trouble.’ I said, ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame.’” Sutton appeared to acknowledge a failure on the local board’s part to provide effective oversight of its director.
“That’s why I’ve got to come off the board, ’cause we just leave it up to Rob,” Sutton told Henley. “That’s where we are making our mistake, just like when he fired Pam…. Everything in [the] election law book gives authority to the board, but the board always, you know, gives the director the leeway in doing all this. And so when I tried to take it away — which I really did — take away his right to fire somebody, which the board is supposed to do, then they gave me flak.”
Henley told Sutton that employees have said that they have broken the law, and every time they try to tell someone, nobody wants to do anything about it.
“I guess it’s the board’s fault because we didn’t go and do our own investigation of it,” Sutton said in response.
The State Board of Elections’ executive director acknowledged that, to an extent, perception is reality in the flurry of allegations of legal violations, personal abuse and impropriety at the Forsyth County Board of Elections.
“The biggest thing we want is a very good elections office for Forsyth County, and we want an elections office they can be proud of,” Bartlett said. “Things of this nature sort of undermines the confidence in the elections process, and without facts backing it up, it will go away, but it will still harm because people will remember the accusations and not necessarily what the facts may be.”