Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Rockhead "leadership" delivers slap across the face

Last night's town board meeting felt eerily familiar: like the days when commissioners hijacked the will of the people to instead dole out personal favors and paybacks.

Sadly, it happened while commissioners were voting to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Mac Herring, a commissioner who utilized his role as town historian to build bridges between old and new Mooresville after those bridges had been torched in the early- to mid-2000s.

On Monday, town commissioners voted 3-2 to appoint former Commissioner Danny Beaver - a man who the people of Mooresville ousted from local government in 2007 - to serve the two years remaining in Herring's term. The vote, not surprisingly, was split down an old, familiar line: "old Mooresville" versus "new." Ward 2 Commissioner Thurman Houston, At-large Commissioner Bobby Compton and Ward 1 Commissioner Eddie Dingler voted for Beaver's appointment. At-large Commissioner David Coble and Ward 4 Commissioner Lisa Qualls dissented. And they didn't shy away from explaining why:

"Mr. Beaver served for eight years, and it was not a good time for Mooresville," said Coble after Houston made the motion to appoint Beaver to the board. Coble had made a motion for the appointment of another candidate, Gary West, which was seconded by Qualls but died for lack of support. Coble reminded the board that Beaver, then an at-large commissioner, lost his bid for re-election in 2007 when current-Mayor Miles Atkins ran a campaign against him "centered on ethics in government."

At that time, Beaver had voted to hand a multi-million-dollar contract to a town friend rather than follow the recommendation of town staff in the hiring of an engineering firm for Mooresville's wastewater treatment plant expansion. Town staff said the firm that commissioners eventually chose was too expensive. Those town staff members were later fired. Then the Mooresville community fired back by ousting Beaver and Frank Owens, who was surprisingly also among the town's four finalists for Herring's replacement. Owens made a run against Herring for his seat just two years ago and was rejected by the town's Ward 3 voters.

Beaver's controversial past on Mooresville's town board didn't seem to matter to Commissioners Compton and Dingler or to Houston, who himself was appointed to the board in 2006, thanks to a strong push by none other than - you guessed it - then-Commissioner Beaver.

Houston, Compton and Dingler on Monday cited "experience" in their choice to return Beaver to the board.

But is Beaver's brand of experience in the best interest of the town?

Coble and Qualls said, unequivocally, no.

Using the word "tumultuous" to describe the years Beaver was in office - and reminding fellow commissioners of the many State Bureau of Investigation probes into the town during that time - Qualls said she was "disappointed" that the majority of the town board seemed okay with moving Mooresville "backwards."

Coble said that the citizens he spoke with during the selection process for Herring's replacement "overwhelmingly said they wanted our choice to be about moving Mooresville forward."

Houston said Beaver is "connected" in Mooresville and that the former commissioner's "integrity is very great" and that he's "an asset to this board." He said that Gary West and Michelle Beam - the other two finalists out of the original 13 applicants - were too inexperienced to serve. "They haven't participated in anything," he said, adding that maybe they'd be more qualified after they "get a little more involved in the community."

That didn't sit well with Qualls, who quipped: "Every one of us was brand new once."

Qualls herself was originally appointed to the town board in 2012.

She said that choosing Beaver was "a slap in the face to the new people who planned to get involved."

I would take that a step further ...

Last night's decision was a slap in the face to the people of this town who, when given a choice, ousted Danny Beaver from local government. It was a slap in the face to the residents of Ward 3 who, when given a choice, chose a person like Mac Herring to represent them. Danny Beaver's style could not be any more opposite from Herring's. Though local-government politics are non-partisan, Beaver is known to be a rockhead conservative, while we used to tease Herring about being a "bleeding-heart liberal." Herring was gentle and compassionate: sometimes, I'd tell him, to a fault. He talked often of building bridges and of his respect for town staff and of his love for the Town of Mooresville and of his dream to see the town continue to move forward and away from the scandals and controversies that defined it in the early- to mid-2000s.

For those reasons, Beaver's appointment last night was also a slap in the face to Mac Herring.

Shame on the three commissioners who delivered it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Herring keeps Ward 3; Coble sweeps at-large seat from Dusenbury

Mooresville voters spoke decisively today in its two contested town-board races.

Results of the town's at-large-commissioner race were perhaps the most surprising of the night: David Coble swept the seat, ousting Incumbent Rhett Dusenbury by a vote of almost 2:1. Coble garnered 1,012 votes to Dusenbury's 560.

Mac Herring will spend a third term in his Ward 3 seat, despite being challenged by Frank Owens, a retired police captain who spent two terms as an at-large town commissioner before being voted out of office in 2005. Herring received 378 votes to Owens' 261.

Miles Atkins ran unopposed for mayor, which means he will hold his seat for another two years.

Ward 4 Commissioner Lisa Qualls also ran unopposed, which secures her four more years on Mooresville's town board.

Meanwhile, Greg Whitfield and Leon Pridgen won the two uncontested seats on the Mooresville Graded School District Board of Education.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Don't forget to vote today!

Today's the day, Mooresville! Click here for information on polling places, times, etc.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Owens should have let sleeping dogs lie

Mooresville citizens ousted Frank Owens from the town board in 2005 after two terms, the last of which was wracked by controversy and scandal.

He was sent packing rather quietly, considering the political atmosphere and sentiment at the time.

But now, eight years later, he has tossed his hat back in the ring, targeting the Ward 3 seat currently occupied by Mac Herring.

Owens has claimed that he is running for office because Herring voted to saddle Mooresville residents with MI-Connection, a $92.5 million cable company that Owens says the town had no business purchasing. And I fully agree with him on that.

But then Owens decided to get a little nit-picky. He recently went digging through his opponent's 2012 county vehicle-tax records and then broke his neck tattle-telling to the Mooresville Tribune about a $88.86 delinquency on Herring's part, which even a county collections official called “very common.” The Tribune contacted Herring, who paid the tax bill before the article was even published in the paper.

Owens attempted to use this as a chance to show, even further, that Herring is irresponsible with money, stating in the Tribune: “What does it say about a commissioner that uses tax dollars from the town and the county and does not pay all of his county tax dollars?” 

Herring's delinquent tax bill was $88.86. If Herring's vote for MI-Connection is Owens' only real talking-point during this campaign, which seems to be the case, then we need to compare apples to apples.

In 2005, Frank Owens rubber-stamped handing a $25 million engineering contract on what would later become an estimated $150 million project to a town-board friend, voting against the recommendation of town engineers who said the expansion of Mooresville's wastewater treatment plant should be completed by a more qualified (and overall less costly) firm.

At one point in Mooresville's history, such a decision would have slid right through, possibly without the public even knowing. But decades of backwoods dealings and good-ol'-boy politics came to an end in the early- to mid-2000s in Mooresville, when the sleepy town was rocked by one scandal after another, all while Owens sat on the town board. With support from the local media and new blood on the board, a new plan was created for the wastewater treatment plant expansion, which meant the overall price was lowered. And the firm that had originally been deemed most qualified by town engineers was given a supervisory role over the former board's choice of CH2M Hill.

But that didn't happen before the town's manager – apparently based primarily on commissioners' persuasion, including (by then former) Commissioner Owens – fired the town's engineer and utilities director, both of whom had vehemently stood up for the best interest of the town's taxpayers against Owens and his ilk … and in spite of personal risk. One commissioner said that the personnel files of the two employees were “completely empty” of any prior disciplinary action at the time of their firings. For more on the CH2M Hill scandal, click here and here

But the CH2M Hill controversy was just the tip of the iceberg.

Also during Owens' last four years as commissioner:
  • In 2001, Mooresville's librarian was indicted and later pleaded guilty to embezzlement for using public money for her private use. But her indictment came in spite of an apathetic Mooresville Town Board and only after an activist blew the whistle and persistently demanded that something be done about it. She also went to the press. An independent review by the Mooresville Tribune raised the possibility that tens of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise had been stolen from or through the library for half-a-dozen years before the indictment. 
  • In 2003, the town's former internal auditor, whose job it was to help prevent financial mismanagement and possible theft like that which had occurred at the library just a couple years prior, stated publicly for the first time that the town lacked financial controls and that her detection of those deficiencies – and her insistence that the town institute change – is likely what led to her firing after only eight months on the job. 
  • In 2004, the then-town manager fired the new town librarian, supposedly for spending more than town policy allowed for a meal. This resulted in another black eye on the town because of widespread scrutiny from newspapers and local television news about the overspending habits of Mooresville's government, primarily via travel and dining expenses. 
  • In 2005, despite the town having a full-time auditor, a finance director and an outside accounting firm that annually conducted an audit of the town's books, it once again took a concerned citizen – through his own volunteer financial probe – to identify a shortage in the inventory at the Mooresville Municipal Golf Course, which was already operationally bathed in red ink. A follow-up audit of the golf inventory showed about $5,000 of missing merchandise from the golf course pro shop. An editorial in the Mooresville Tribune stated: “The litany of mismanagement gets longer and longer, our town commissioners say little about it, and you, the taxpayers, foot the bill.”
  • Also in early 2006 - just after Owens was voted off the town board - the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visited the Town of Mooresville and confiscated town computers. To date, no one knows what the FBI was looking for, but most assume it had something to do with the town board, against procedure, granting its friend's engineering firm the lucrative $25 million engineering contract for the wastewater treatment plant expansion. One former commissioner said the FBI told commissioners that the agents were looking into actions of prior town-board members. He said he was specifically asked by the FBI if he thought former commissioners were receiving “kick-backs” for preferential awarding of contracts. “I don't believe they received money for it,” he said, “but it certainly showed poor judgment.”
And now word is finally public about a 2001 FBI investigation into Owens for public corruption, following a state probe into a Mooresville gambling hut. 

One former public official, during an interview about the investigation, said: “Frank Owens has a pattern of abusing power, whether it's as a police officer or a commissioner.

“We have gotten past the yahoo-style of government and crookedness and the 'you-aren't-my-friend-anymore' high-school politics.”

I could not agree more. A vote for Frank Owens on Tuesday is a vote to move Mooresville backwards. It's really just that simple.

Two years ago, commenters on this blog resurrected the issue of Owens' gambling and the 2001 FBI investigation. Owens contacted me via private message on Facebook at that time, asking me to remove the comments and to contact him. I did call him, and while stating that he was "just trying to lead a good, Christian life," he insisted that the gambling accusations were false. He offered to meet with me and tell “the truth” about what "had really happened." I saw no need; after all, he was a private citizen at the time, which meant that whatever had gone on in his private life was no longer the public's concern. Still, his behavior while he was a commissioner was and is fair-game for public scrutiny.

Now that he's running again for public office, the fact that he was investigated by the FBI for public corruption has become relevant for reporting; Owens' personal character is once again the public's business.

But Owens has clammed up again. He apparently doesn't want to talk about the scandal anymore; he still has not responded to Report questions sent in mid-October about his involvement in illegal gambling and the 2001 FBI investigation and grand jury. And the only thing that has changed from two years ago, when he wanted to talk about it, until now is that he's eyeballing a seat on Mooresville's town board.

Yes, Mac Herring, the Ward 3 incumbent, voted for MI-Connection during his first term on the town board. He made, in my opinion, a multi-million-dollar mistake. And I don't take that lightly. But if Herring's vote was so heinous, why did no one challenge him when he sought (and won) re-election in 2009? If Owens' motivation is to remove Herring from office to, as he claims, protect the taxpayers from a tax-and-spender, why did he wait another four years to do it? He could have run against Herring in 2009, but he didn't. In fact, no one did. Herring ran unopposed.

I was here, with a front-row seat, when Owens was last a commissioner. He and other board members gave the town one black eye after another. Far from being apologetic, they banned together and thumbed their noses at the public, over and over. Visits from SBI and FBI agents became almost commonplace. Shameful reports by newspapers and television news stations were plentiful; in fact, the material that Owens and other town-board members gave the Mooresville Tribune was enough to fill a wall with awards for investigative reporting and community service. The town became a laughingstock, notorious for scandal and controversy.

It was an ugly, politically restless period in Mooresville's history. I don't want to see it repeated, nor do I believe that anyone who was on the board at that time deserves a second chance to govern and shape policy in this town.

Herring voted for MI-Connection. But the SBI has not been in Mooresville since he's been a commissioner. The FBI hasn't visited, either, except – in the first few months of Herring's first term – to look into the actions of Owens and his fellow town-board members.

The public is smart enough to draw its own conclusions about that. And come what may on Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Feds once targeted Owens for public corruption

Frank Owens, who is once again seeking a seat on Mooresville's town board, was investigated by state and federal authorities for public corruption during his last term as town commissioner.

According to several current and former law-enforcement and public officials, all who asked their names to be withheld, Owens was first investigated by Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE), in combination with the Mooresville Police Department (MPD), then the case was sent to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2001.

The case apparently went before a federal grand jury either the day before or after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America. And that's where the story seems to end and speculation begins.

Owens is now challenging incumbent Mac Herring for the Ward 3 seat on Mooresville's town board. Election Day is Nov. 5.

State begins gambling probe
The public-corruption investigation began with ALE and the Mooresville Police Department in late summer 2001. The state agency asked for local assistance when it began investigating reports of illegal gambling at a bingo hut on Timber Road in Mooresville. Owens, a 30-year veteran of the Mooresville Police Department who retired as captain in 1996, was at the end of his first of two consecutive terms as an at-large town commissioner. He served from 1997 to 2005, when he lost his seat to Frank Rader. The seat is currently occupied by Rhett Dusenbury, who is being challenged this year by David Coble. 

Mooresville had a specialized unit that assisted ALE with the 2001 public-corruption investigation.

“There was legitimate bingo in one part of the building, but the back of the operation held real, poker-related gambling,” one officer recalled.

As part of their undercover operation, two ALE officers, driving an unmarked, white Mitsubishi Eclipse, made their way into the Timber Road bingo/gambling establishment. According to several accounts from people close to the investigation, Owens was inside the bingo hut when the undercover state agents walked in.

Owens apparently decided to use his connections as a high-ranking official to determine the identities of the undercover agents by calling the Mooresville Police Department with the Mitsubishi's license-plate tag number. He was connected to Dispatcher Sheila Caldwell, at which time he asked her whether the call was being recorded. Caldwell then switched him to a line that was not being recorded.

Owens asks dispatcher/officers to violate law
Within minutes, the Eclipse's tag number was run for the first of several times through the N.C. Division of Criminal Information (DCI). It is illegal to access systems such as DCI for purposes not specifically authorized in the law and by people who don't have specific authorization. As explained by one officer, all law enforcement personnel must acknowledge, via certification, that they understand it is illegal under state and federal law to use DCI for purposes other than law-enforcement business.

The Town of Mooresville, at the time, apparently did not have a policy regarding police officers running the plates of vehicles for non-law-enforcement people and purposes. That policy became effective on Sept. 18, 2001 – shortly after the ALE officers busted the gambling operation and a grand jury was convened – according to public records obtained by the Report. Still, say current and former law-enforcement personnel, officers and dispatchers knew that running tag numbers for non-law-enforcement personnel for non-law-enforcement purposes was illegal.

Mooresville police were almost immediately notified that the the license-plate number of the vehicle the ALE agents were driving had been run through DCI. “Since undercover tags are flagged, DMV (Division of Motor Vehicles) quickly alerted the police department to the tags being run,” recalled one officer.

Though Caldwell – who did not respond to e-mailed Report questions this week – provided Owens with the information he requested of her, in the hours after the initial time the tag was run, the then-commissioner also called on other law-enforcement officers to run the tag number. Those officers were later interviewed by the FBI and subpoenaed to testify to the federal grand jury.

Owens 'outs', chases state agents
Upon learning that the license-plate on the Mitsubishi Eclipse was registered to government agents, officers say that Owens, who was still inside the gambling establishment, outed the two ALE agents, verbally identifying them as “cops” to those who were present.

“It was almost as if Frank Owens was working security for the gambling house,” said one officer.

The two ALE officers, once identified, immediately exited the building and fled in the car registered to the town.

But Owens wasn't letting it go that easily, said sources in interviews with the Report. Instead, the then-commissioner trailed the ALE agents down NC 115 toward Davidson – sometimes at high rates of speed – until they finally made their way onto I-77. That's when Owens finally backed off.

Undercover Mooresville police officers witnessed the entire event, including the car chase. They were stationed along Timber Road in unmarked cars and were wearing transmitters, which provided constant communication with the ALE agents. The Mooresville officers followed Owens as he chased the ALE agents down NC 115.

Why didn't they pull Owens over, especially knowing what had just transpired and considering he was an easy target for speeding while chasing the agents? Simple, said one source close to the case: “They didn't want him to follow them back to the police department. They were trying to keep from having their cover blown.”

FBI launches public-corruption probe, federal grand jury convened
It wasn't until a follow-up visit to the Mooresville Police Department that the ALE agents positively identified the man who outed them as “cops” inside the gambling hall and then took it upon himself to chase them down NC 115. They were able to identify Owens in a photo of town commissioners hanging on a wall at the Mooresville Police Department.

The case was handed to the SBI to investigate. Considering the sheer number of people who helped Owens by calling in the tag number of the undercover vehicle, the case began to appear much more complex than a case of mere gambling. That's when the FBI became involved and started investigating a possible public corruption case: “I was contacted by the FBI and told they were investigating the corruption of a public official,” said one former law-enforcement officer who later became a federal witness.

At least two Report sources say they were interviewed by FBI agents.

“I told them the truth: Owens asked me to run the license plate," said one source. "There was no rule in place for us not to do that. Owens told me it was on a suspicious vehicle parked at BJ's (where he worked at the time); I had no idea it was an ALE agent that was monitoring the gambling house. If he did that, shame on him.”

The late Capt. Leon White, a loyal friend of Owens', apparently told federal authorities the same story about the tag being on a suspicious vehicle at BJ's.

“Obviously, they had gotten their story straight,” said one former officer. “So the FBI just decided to put the case in front of a grand jury and let them offer that lie there, with no lawyers present.”

Said another: “I testified in front of the grand jury. I told the truth because it was the right thing to do.” However, he said, “The FBI is very secretive. They didn't share any information with me.”

The case stops
The grand jury was convened, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred at the same time. That's where the story essentially stops. Any information after that is speculative at best:

“After 9-11, it was clear they weren't going to follow up,” said one source. “I was a federal witness, and they never called me back. They said the reason they didn't continue with the case is because the gambling never met the threshold; the house didn't make enough money to make it a federal crime.”

Other law-enforcement personnel say while federal officials may have suggested that the dollar-amount was the reason for dropping or closing the case, it wouldn't have likely been the actual cause. “When it comes to public corruption,” said one source, a dollar-amount made at the gambling house would not matter. The fact that a commissioner would be involved in illegal activity and then interject himself in a criminal investigation “undermines people's trust in government,” he said. And that would have been more pressing to law-enforcement investigating public corruption than a specific dollar amount made at a gambling house.

After all, said one former officer, gambling was just “an instrument” of the bigger public-corruption case.

A former federal official said it is plausible that federal authorities dropped the case because the amount of money did not meet a threshold for white-collar fraud and embezzlement or criminal enterprise. “With too few federal representatives, the bigger players – the more sexy cases – were going to get the action,” he said. “The dollar amount (made at the gambling house) would be a legitimate consideration in making the determination” of whether to pursue the public-corruption case.

But he said it is more likely that the public-corruption case was no longer pursued because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “There was a wholesale realignment of investigative priorities” after 9-11, he said.

Before the terrorist attacks, the FBI had “investigative priorities, and terror and counterterrorism weren't even on the list,” he said. “Federal agencies were turned on their head because of September 11th.”

What was happening in Mooresville, he said, “could have been a federal crime, but the concept is you go after the bigger fish. It's piranhas versus sharks.”

One of several sources speculated that perhaps federal authorities did not have a strong enough case against Owens. “I don't know if the FBI couldn't put all the pieces together for a federal case or what. I feel if (the grand jury) thought they could have indicted him, they would have. I think it just stopped at the grand jury, and (the FBI) didn't present a strong enough case.”

However, he said, “They (FBI agents) are secretive. They don't share information. They wouldn't tell why it stopped.”

'Systematic retaliation' and unanswered questions
No matter the reason for the case being “dropped” or “closed” or “stopped” – and despite the lingering question of why the state didn't pick the case back up when the federal government's attention was directed elsewhere – the fact that the case was not followed through meant local officers involved in exposing and investigating the gambling house suddenly became sitting ducks. The top brass at the police department, including then-Police Chief John Crone, had been largely kept in the dark about the state's investigation. And the target of their probe – a town commissioner in part responsible for overseeing the operation of the government, including the police department – had been investigated by the FBI, and his friends had been forced to testify in front of a federal grand jury, yet he was clearly not being held accountable. Owens was free to move on with his life – and, if he wished, to make things very uncomfortable for police-department employees who participated in the investigation.

At the police department, the specialized unit that worked with the ALE agents was immediately disbanded.

They started systematically getting rid of people and demoting people after the FBI called off the investigation,” one former officer said. “It was systematic retaliation.”

One source said Owens approached Crone, telling him to terminate at least one of the officers involved. The Report asked Owens about that in an e-mail of questions sent on Oct. 16 and 17 to three different e-mail addresses he owns. To date, Owens has not responded to any of the questions.

We asked Owens to point out any discrepancies or possible misinformation in the detailed accounts provided by Report sources. He did not respond.

We asked him: if the police dispatcher had already provided him with the information he was seeking on the tag, why did he ask several other people to run the tag, too? Owens did not respond.

We asked Owens if he has ever been involved in illegal gambling in Mooresville and, if so, if he was involved while he was a police officer and/or a town commissioner. He did not respond.

We asked him if he was ever interviewed by the FBI while it was investigating him for public corruption. Owens did not respond.

We have offered, in another e-mail, to post his response(s) if he ever changes his mind.

Sheriff's reserve officer facing charges

A reserve officer with the Iredell County Sheriff's Office is facing charges after reportedly pointing a gun at a tow-truck driver who was repossessing his vehicle.

J.D. Williams - who has also run twice, unsuccessfully, for Statesville's City Council - was served with two  criminal summons for misdemeanor charges, including assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment, stemming from the Oct. 1 incident, states an article in the Statesville Record & Landmark.

The gun that Williams used was not issued to him by the Iredell County Sheriff's Office, according to the Statesville Police Department, which is investigating, and the ICSO.

ICSO Maj. Marty Byers said the sheriff's office, in fact, has not issued a weapon to Williams in his capacity as a reserve officer.

To read more of the R&L's story click here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

More shocking details revealed in sexual-harassment case against Iredell deputy

By Allison Latos

Channel 9 has learned new details in the sexual harassment lawsuit against Iredell County Deputy Ben Jenkins, who is accused of targeting domestic violence victims.

Documents filed in federal court this week reveal allegations that behavior was condoned and committed higher up in the department.

Read the details from Channel 9 here.

For revealing new court documents related to this case, click here and here