LUMBERTON — The Robeson County District Attorney’s Office has launched an investigation into how information from a sheriff’s candidate’s personnel files ended up in the public arena.
District Attorney Johnson Britt said a search by State Bureau of Investigation agents and Robeson County District Attorney’s Office investigators of the town of Red Springs’ administrative offices failed to turn up what he called “complete” personnel files relating to a sexual harassment investigation of Ronnie Patterson. Patterson is now the town’s police chief, and one of five candidates for sheriff.
An 87-page copy of the files reached The Robesonian, which published a story on April 26 concerning that investigation and the fact that Patterson lied under oath during the investigation, which was in 2008.
Britt said a search warrant was signed Thursday night by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge James Floyd Ammons and executed Friday morning. An SBI agent and Erich Hackney, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, are listed on the search warrant, which was signed at 9:45 p.m. Thursday.
Preliminary interviews provided probable cause for the search, according to Britt.
With early voting ending Saturday, the clock is ticking down on the primary election. Turnout has been heavy, which election watchers attribute to the sheriff’s race that pits Patterson against Randy Graham, James Jones, George Kenworthy and Burnis Wilkins.
“Misusing sealed, confidential personnel files is a crime,” Britt said. “It was reported that Patterson’s camp was going to ask the SBI to investigate, so I called them.”
Britt said the SBI had not been asked to investigate by the town, and that McNeill could not ask for such an investigation because he is a private citizen.
John McNeill, a former mayor of Red Springs and one of Patterson’s three campaign managers, said he was pleased there is an investigation, although he questioned the timing.
“We’re happy this matter is being investigated,” McNeill said. “The files should be there. Somewhere, there is a problem.
“This investigation raised an issue of why the district attorney is investigating this case three days before an election. Why is the SBI interested?”
Britt said the Patterson camp “alleged that a crime was committed, it was my duty to follow up their allegation.”
McNeill said he believes there is an attempt to hurt Patterson.
“It seems unethical that a newspaper editor or a district attorney would attempt to influence an election in this way,” he said. “It’s scary.”
The Robesonian published the story after being provided a copy of the file on April 23. The newspaper contacted McNeill, and he sent a text to the editor of the paper that read “print at your peril.” It included a screen-shot of a judge’s order that the document stay sealed.
The Robesonian was not a party to the agreement, and published the information after consulting a lawyer.
“The Patterson camp said repeatedly in the public that there was no sexual harassment claim and that Patterson had not lied under oath,” said Donnie Douglas, editor of the paper. “When we were handed evidence showing they were not being truthful, it was our job to publish. I am quite certain if we had the same information on another sheriff’s candidate, the Patterson camp would want us to publish.”
Britt said investigators were seeking to interview Patterson on Friday. They want to ask him if he knows the whereabouts of the missing files.
Breaching the confidentiality of state-protected personnel files is a Class 3 misdemeanor, although other charges may be applicable in this case, including malfeasance, a potential felony.
The Robesonian received copies of the files from a source who asked not to be named. The Robesonian was told by its source that the files were found in an abandoned storage unit in Red Springs.
The investigation of Patterson into the alleged sexual harassment found the sexual harassment claim to be “unsubstantiated,” but Patterson was suspended two weeks without pay and demoted from captain to school resource officer.
A letter in the file from the North Carolina Department of Justice’s J. Rick Brown said Patterson lied multiple times during the investigation, and said his continued employment as an officer put the town at risk and that he should not be a law enforcement officer.
“His effectiveness as a law enforcement officer is ruined,” Brown wrote. “You are now on notice of his dishonesty, which could result in liability to the city in the future for his dishonest acts.
“I would suggest that you look at the impact this has in the department, the other city offices and the community as a whole. The message to others is that even though you took an oath to uphold the laws, you can lie and still be a cop for your city.”
Britt told The Robesonian that Patterson is under what is called “Giglio,” meaning that if he testifies in court the prosecution must disclose to the defense Patterson’s past perjury.
McNeill served for 24 years on the Red Springs Board of Commissioners and for 10 as the town’s mayor. Patterson left the department, but was rehired in 2010 as its police chief, after the town was aware of his perjury. McNeill was mayor at that time.
The Robesonian last week received a letter from Red Springs Town Manager David Ashburn demanding the original file and any copies be returned to the town. The Robesonian does not possess the original, and told Ashburn it would not turn over the copy.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]