Thursday, April 13, 2006

Who Shot the Sheriff?

Guest Blogging ... Glenn T. Hubbard:

Allegations that Watauga County Sheriff Mark Shook sexually harassed his chief deputy have divided Republicans in a bitter primary battle, leaving many Democrats intrigued, and revealing a void in the traditional news media's coverage of local issues. A long-rumored complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is moving forward, according to informed sources, but has been slowed down by legal complications because both the complainant and the defendant are law enforcement officers.

"I'm very disappointed with Mark," former Watauga County Sheriff Red Lyons said Tuesday, when contacted for this story, "I'm not going to get into the reasons, but there are some things that have been going on that just don't agree with my lifestyle." Lyons's comments are in sharp contrast with his position just four years ago, when he actively campaigned for the current sheriff: "We have the man right here who has my support," the Watauga Democrat quoted him as saying in September of 2002.

The circumstances that prompted Lyons to withdraw his support for Shook and campaign instead for former deputy Joe Moody this year have become the subject of one of the most divisive controversies in recent Watauga County history. As is often the case with local political issues, the great majority of information has been passed by word of mouth, often in the form of unsubstantiated rumors and, more recently, anonymous postings on this blog. Perhaps as a result, the local mainstream media have avoided the story altogether -- reporting only that Moody is challenging Shook in the Republican primary. This article is an attempt to sort out the facts in a journalistically fair, accurate manner. It contains only information confirmed by multiple, reliable sources whose identity and credibility were verifiable.

In explaining his reasons for supporting Moody over Shook, Lyons emphasized morality. "Joe Moody is a good Christian man -- he teaches Sunday School at his church -- and he worked for me for 20 years," Lyons said. "Mark didn't work for me all that long, but I decided to support him back then -- and now some things have happened that I'm not going to get into, and I've decided that Watauga County needs a change."

Lyons's focus on religious morality in the sheriff's race is not surprising, given that he is a gospel singer popular in area churches. However, it is clear that his position on Shook's fitness to serve as sheriff has changed. Several sources close to the Republican Party say in addition to actively supporting Moody, Lyons was instrumental in recruiting the former deputy to run. Speculation into Lyons's reasoning has centered on four key points:

1) Some sources say Lyons was offended that Shook received positive media attention for a series of meth lab busts during Shook's first three years as sheriff, supposedly implying that Lyons had allowed the problem to fester during his time in office.

2) Democratic Party sources have confirmed that they believe Shook was supportive of Democratic county commission candidates in 2004, because he claimed the Republicans on the board had not supported necessary budget requests for his department.

3) As is often the case with law enforcement operations, Shook's department has been the subject of some complaints -- by defense attorneys and others -- of unfair treatment of suspects, as well as various administrative and legal misdeeds. Some of these allegations will be investigated further and reported in a future article on this blog if the information warrants such a report.

4) Shook is the subject of a sexual harassment claim alleging that he fired his chief deputy after engaging in a romantic relationship with her. I have confirmed that a claim is being processed through the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It was originally filed August 5, 2005, but sources say there are special Justice Department rules that apply when an EEOC complaint involves law enforcement personnel, resulting in an even slower process than usual. The complainant, former Chief Deputy Paula Townsend, was a holdover from Lyons's years as sheriff. Many say she became chief deputy under Shook because of a deal between Shook and Lyons. Townsend is also a relative of Lyons's. In addition to the federal complaint, members of the legal community say a civil lawsuit is expected soon -- a point others dispute.

The question of whether a lawsuit is forthcoming is, in itself, controversial, because most sources contacted for this story had expected it to be filed by the end of March. Shook supporters claim the delay in the suit's filing is for political reasons. They say once a lawsuit is filed, legal discovery requirements would force the plaintiff to produce evidence, which they say she does not have. No one close to Townsend had provided an explanation of the suit's delay by the time this article was posted, and neither Townsend nor Shook could be reached for comment.

I have confirmed, however, that a pre-litigation mediation session took place, in which Townsend's attorney produced a letter, purportedly written by Shook to Townsend. Copies of a letter alleged to be the one presented during mediation have been quietly circulated as part of a campaign against Shook for several months. Sources close to Shook say he does not deny writing the letter, but he claims its subject matter was not of a sexual nature. Despite repeated requests, Shook's opponents have not provided a copy of the letter or enough specific details about its content to confirm for use in this story. Several independent sources have confirmed, however, that Shook and Townsend had an "emotionally close" relationship that one or both might have construed as "loving" at one time or another. There has been no confirmation of a sexual relationship between the two, despite rampant rumors that one took place.

I previously reported on this blog that Shook claimed not to have sent the letter to Townsend, but alleged that it might have been stolen out of his desk. I have not been able to confirm such an account of Shook's claims for this story. One source close to Shook said, simply, "He told me there was a letter."

Shook has maintained that he had ample cause to fire Townsend. Several sources have supported his claim. "Paula wasn't there," said an unnamed former deputy who worked closely with Shook and Townsend for several years and was involved in many of the department's meth lab investigations. "I never saw her until it came time to take credit for [the meth lab busts] or get her picture in the paper," he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Civilians in the county have also come to Shook's defense. "I live in an area that has had many meth labs taken down," said one supporter with ties to the department, who identified herself to me but asked not to be named in this article. "As a parent, I appreciate the time and energy that the WCSO, under Shook's leadership, has put into getting rid of this dangerous drug," she said, suggesting that Shook's opponents have ulterior motives: "I know many of the people who are attacking Mark are mad because of Paula getting fired -- by the way, I do not believe her claim of sexual harassment -- but I wonder if some of them have been busted by the Sheriff's department for their own illegal activities and have an axe to grind."

Many of Shook's detractors, though, are clearly not criminals. Prominent attorneys, former law enforcement officers, politicians, professors and even some journalists are among those who have weighed in against him for this story. Boone defense attorney Eric Eller is one of the only people on either side of the Shook controversy willing to speak on the record: "I believe the overall professionalism of the Watauga County Sheriff's Department has deteriorated badly since Mark Shook's election," said Eller. "He's fired a lot of very good, professional, law enforcement officers and seems to have replaced them with less capable or qualified officers." Eller is among the attorneys accusing Shook of violating suspects' rights and mishandling key law enforcement tasks. "It seems that in Shook's eyes, it's OK to lie, cheat, plant evidence, use threats of physical violence, anything, so long as you convict those whom he thinks are troublemakers, regardless of the facts," said Eller.

There are, of course, many people lining up behind Lyons and Moody with their own reasons to want the sheriff replaced -- from sheriff's department employees either demoted or fired by Shook, to defense attorneys unhappy with how their clients have been treated, to any number of other people who have formed negative opinions of him for countless individual reasons. This is typical in politics. Shook made significant changes, both in terms of staffing and law enforcement techniques, when he replaced a popular sheriff who had been in office for almost two decades. Many argue that the department is more effective and better staffed than it had ever been before. Others claim there are serious problems in Shook's administration. None, though, have drawn a clear connection between the sexual harassment charge against Shook and his effectiveness, or lack thereof, as sheriff. Ultimately it comes down to whether voters believe the allegations against Shook and whether, in light of the allegations, he deserves another term.

Sheriff's races in Watauga County have not always been this controversial. Lyons frequently garnered upward of 75 percent of the general election vote when he ran in the 1980s and '90s, and he never had a serious primary challenge. Furthermore, Shook was considered in many political circles "untouchable" until the recent allegations surfaced. Democratic Party sources say they had no intention of recruiting a candidate for sheriff until they realized the potential seriousness of the allegations against Shook.

For those who have withheld judgment until now, the best I can do is confirm that the letter is real; Shook does not deny its authorship; Townsend was fired; and a complaint is going forward with the EEOC. Shook denies a sexual relationship, and I have neither seen nor heard any proof that there was one. I will continue to investigate, though, and report any pertinent facts I am able to confirm. I have heard compelling arguments from both sides of the controversy, but at this point I have found no proof -- only people with strong personal motivations, some justified, some not, to affect the outcome of the Republican primary.

Many questions remain, but what is certain is that the traditional media have been inexplicably silent on one of the biggest local stories of the decade. I will not editorialize here on why that might be the case -- I've written more than enough on the subject already -- but I hope I've been able to fill the void at least to some extent. The irony is, a few of my sources have told me they're in regular contact with local reporters who know significant details about this story. Still, the papers have printed nothing.

I continue to ask for credible sources to come forward. I intend to look deeper into the story as time allows.

Glenn T. Hubbard

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