Lawsuits, convictions and voting

by Jordan Green

How Winston-Salem candidates sift out

Has the candidate on your ballot been convicted of a crime, sued someone or wound up on the receiving end of litigation? Did they vote in the last election?

Conviction of a misdemeanor or felony might reflect the quality of a candidate’s citizenship, but the deal is hardly cut and dried: A record for civil disobedience would have to be viewed differently than a rap sheet for fraud or armed robbery. Brushes with the law also provide firsthand experience with law enforcement, and public safety is a core service provided by city governments. You decide whether the experience has seasoned the candidate or counts as a mark against them.

No candidates for Winston-Salem City Council have been convicted of felonies, and only two have been found guilty of misdemeanors. One is Mayor Allen Joines’ Republican challenger, James Lee Knox.

The 56-year-old Knox has four misdemeanor convictions on file in the Forsyth County Court. Two — damage to personal property and assault and battery — stem from the same incident in October 1991. The following year, in November 1992, Knox was convicted of obstructing a public officer. And in January 2007, he was convicted of simple assault.

Knox said he doesn’t have a clear recollection of the convictions.

“The only thing I can think of is when I was working at Coliseum Shell and some Wake Forest [University] students came and threw rocks,” Knox said. “They were drunk and they were going to Baity Street. And I went and took the keys out of their car. I don’t even know if that’s right. I got into trouble for it.”

Asked specifically about the 1992 conviction for obstructing a public officer, Knox said the charge was fabricated because a police officer was unhappy with his selection in a lineup during a murder investigation.

“The police hasn’t always been the most honest people,” Knox said, “and that’s no secret in this town. There have been detectives that have been as corrupt as the day is long. Look at the Darryl Hunt situation where supposedly the police hid some evidence. I got screwed over trying to be an honest, law-abiding citizen, it’s gotten to where if I thought someone got killed I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near because I’d be afraid they would falsely accuse me.”

As a tow-truck operator, Knox noted that he regularly works with the police.

“There’s some police out there that probably shouldn’t be police,” he said. “Most of the police in this town are good, honest, hard-working people. If I became mayor, would I hold a grudge? The answer is no. Because I work with the police now I understand how hard they work. And they deserve more money.”

More recently, in January 2007, Knox was convicted of simple assault.

Knox said he got into a dispute with a man at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum about some seats during a Carolina-Wake game. Knox said he went to sit at the bar to cool off after exchanging words with the man. Afterwards, when he was walking through the coliseum, Knox said, the man’s friend grabbed him and threw him up against the wall. The candidate said he was accused of spitting on the friend.

Knox said the late Judge Roland Hayes took the accuser’s word over his and convicted him without evidence, adding that the accuser was black; Knox is white.

The case file could not be retrieved to determine whether any documentation corroborated Knox’s account. A clerk in the criminal records office said the file was destroyed because more than five years have passed since the conviction.

Several candidates have traffic offenses, but YES! Weekly’s review did not include them, with the exception of driving while intoxicated, based on the serious public safety risk posed by the infraction. A car accident in downtown Winston-Salem involving Mayor Allen Joines in March was well publicized. The mayor was cited with unsafe movement, but police determined that neither velocity nor alcohol were factors.

Phil Carter, who is part of a three-way race with Derwin Montgomery and Joycelyn Johnson in the Democratic primary for the East Ward, readily acknowledged convictions for driving while intoxicated and possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana, both stemming from the same incident in February 1990.

“There was another individual who I didn’t know had that substance on him,” Carter said, “but by it being my vehicle, it was my charge.”

He took direct responsibility for the driving while intoxicated charge.

“As far as that DUI goes, I did enter into rehab and substance abuse treatment,” the candidate said. “I’ve been clean of drugs and alcohol from that day to today.”

The following year Carter was charged with felony breaking and entering. He said that he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor breaking and entering even though he wasn’t guilty.

“It was someone else,” Carter said. “I had been assaulted and beaten and had to have emergency surgery. When it came time for me to go into court by me being unemployed and black, I didn’t have money to hire a lawyer. I took a plea.”

To this day, Carter regrets  that decision.

“I would have to say those experiences in my life taught me that all things are not as they appear sometimes,” the candidate said. “There are circumstances that cause people to have a judgment on others that is not actually factual. That’s why I became a community activist. That’s why I help people who are ignorant of the process. In being ignorant of the process, sometimes one only does what’s presented to them. That’s why I went to Forsyth Tech and took up paralegal studies — so I would have a deeper understanding of the law and be able to implement it when appropriate.”

Carter, who has carried out votereducation drives on behalf of the Forsyth Democratic Party, said his experience with the criminal-justice system makes him the candidate for those citizens who have been misjudged.

Three candidates have either been sued or used the courts to seek redress for alleged wrongs committed against them.

The cases shed some light on how the candidates handle conflict — whether they address concerns head-on or distance themselves from controversy and whether they fight for their rights and interests.

Brenda B. Diggs, one of three Democrats contending to represent the Northeast Ward, and her husband were sued as a member of the board of directors of St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in 2009. Disgruntled members of the church sought an order for a special meeting to fire the pastor and, if necessary, to dissolve the board of directors.

In a classic case of church dissension and drama, the plaintiffs accused the board of directors of demonstrating “inadequate leadership” and of “treating the leadership and administration of the church like a hierarchical rather than a congregational church” while backing the pastor. Specifically, the disgruntled parishioners alleged that the board members failed to provide membership with adequate information about operations and the fiscal condition of the church, gave the pastor a raise without their knowledge and refused to provide information about the pastor’s compensation. The defendants, including the pastor and board members, categorically denied the allegations.

Forsyth County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Judson DeRamus ordered the case into mediation in October and the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the case the following May.

Diggs said she and her husband left the church after the lawsuit was filed.

“I kept in touch with the legal fund to make sure we had legal proof that we asked to be dismissed,” she said. “That is something that I am so far removed from. My husband and I have stayed completely away from it. We moved on. Life is short, and there isn’t time for craziness.”

Vivian Burke, the Democratic incumbent in the Northeast Ward, has also been sued. The NC Department of Transportation took Burke to court in 2011 when the two parties were unable to reach agreement on the price of a rental property the candidate owns on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at East 2 nd Street. The department of transportation had offered $40,650 for a new right-of-way and permanent utility easement in front of the house, but Burke, who represented herself in the case, wasn’t satisfied.

Judge DeRamus, who also handled the lawsuit involving Diggs, ordered the case into mediation on July 29, 2011, and five days later the parties entered a consent agreement ordering the department of transportation to pay Burke $60,000.

Burke said the lesson of the experience is not that she displayed backbone by negotiating an extra $19,350 from the state, but that she demonstrated wisdom by settling instead of demanding more.

“Let’s say I had carried it to court,” Burke said. “They can wait it out as long as they want, and I’m still paying for it with my tax dollars.”

Gardenia Henley, who is challenging Mayor Allen Joines in the Democratic primary, became a party to civil litigation as a result of being a crime victim.

Henley said a dispute with her neighbors arose after she ordered them to stop dumping debris on her property and they responded by threatening her. Pattie Thomas Flinchum, Henley’s neighbor, was charged with communicating threats on the basis, as laid out in a criminal warrant, that the defendant told Henley she would “kick her ass.” Flinchum appealed a district court conviction, and a superior court jury found her guilty on July 28. Judge Ronald E. Spivey ordered Flinchum to pay $625 in restitution to Henley, complete 24 hours of community service and to have no further contact with her neighbor.

Flinchum’s mother, Shirley Thomas Jones, soon filed for a restraining order against Henley. Jones alleged that on July 30, the day after her daughter’s sentence, Henley “was in a wooded area beside of my residence taking photos of my family. She always comes to this area with a camera and pitchfork. I am in fear she is going to harm me and my family.”

District Court Judge Lawrence Fine denied the order and dismissed the case.

Henley, in turn, attempted to take out a restraining order against Flinchum in 2010.

“On several occasions Mrs. Flinchum has continued to violate the court order by placing large amounts of debris in my yard and admitting to it, and by coercing the neighbors to call the police on me based on bogus claims,” Henley wrote.

Judge George Bedsworth denied the order.

Henley said the matter is settled now, and she believes her neighbors “understand where I’m coming from.” It was worthwhile to uphold her rights through the legal system.

“If you have a dispute and it’s a valid one,” Henley said, “then you take it to court.”

This article does not include divorces, based on the editorial judgment that such legal actions are extremely personal and have little bearing on how well a candidate is likely to serve in public office.

Brushes with the law and use of the courts — part of a larger character composite — are only a part of the complex set of factors voters will use to evaluate the candidates, which also includes positions on important policy issues, leadership ability, effectiveness at advocating for constituents and a sense of trust, often obtained through personal interactions.

And very few people will make the decision of who leads the city — 3.7 percent in the 2009 primary and 9.6 percent in the general election that year. So what does it say when candidates for elective office haven’t bothered to vote in previous elections? Can they expect voters to go to the polls when they haven’t demonstrated the same initiative themselves in years when their names were not on the ballot? Or is it understandable that important personal matters sometimes intervene and civic duty has to take a backseat.

Diggs, one of the challengers in the Democratic primary for the Northeast Ward, did not vote in the general or primary elections in the past two municipal elections, which took place in 2009 and 2005, according to her voting record. She noted that she and her husband have faithfully voted in presidential elections.

“If we didn’t vote it was because we were away or because of an illness with my husband,” she said.

Jemmise Bowen, another Democrat seeking the Northeast Ward seat, voted in both the primary and general election in 2009, but missed the general election in 2005. She expressed surprise at being informed of her oversight, relating that when she missed an election in the 1990s her parents almost didn’t forgive her.

“It doesn’t sound right, but I can’t say whether I did or didn’t, to be honest with you,” Bowen said.

Lida Hayes-Calvert, a Republican running for the open Northwest Ward seat, did not vote in the last two municipal elections, according to her voting record. The said her hyphenated name might have led to confusion and omissions in the record.

“I voted,” she said. “I always vote.” Noah Reynolds, a Democrat running in the Northwest Ward, likewise missed the last two municipal elections.

“My father died in 2009 and I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to city politics in 2009,” Reynolds said. “I was working on my family that year.”

Laura Elliott, another Democrat seeking the Northwest Ward seat, voted in the 2005 municipal general election, but missed the 2009 general election. She said she has been active in politics and community affairs for 25 years, and she confirmed with the Forsyth County Board of Elections that she voted in every municipal election since 1993, with the exception of the most recent one in 2009.

“That was my last year in seminary,” Elliott said. “I was taking classes at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury. I imagine what might have happened is that I was in class or with professors. I probably thought I would get back in time to vote, and I just didn’t make it.”