JEFFERSON — Sheriff Terry Buchanan’s first months as Ashe County’s top law-enforcement officer have been tumultuous, culminating in a scandal that resulted in felony obstruction charges being filed against him, according to a petition filed by District Attorney Tom Horner.
On Monday, a grand jury indicted Buchanan, who was appointed as Ashe County’s sheriff in January, on three felony counts of obstruction of justice and three misdemeanor counts of willful failure to discharge duties.
Buchanan, 53, is accused of using his office to launch an illegal criminal investigation into three county employees who were trying to comply with a public-records request for emails, text messages and any other written communication that Buchanan sent and received between Dec. 1, 2016, and April 6, 2017.
Horner also filed a sealed petition seeking to permanently remove Buchanan from office. On Wednesday, Judge R. Gregory Horne unsealed the petition. Horne also temporarily suspended Buchanan on Monday with pay pending a hearing Nov. 13. Buchanan is out on a $25,000 bond.
In the petition, Horner alleges that Buchanan tried to keep county employees from turning over to WBTV records for a personal cellphone on which he conducted official business. The Charlotte TV station made a public-records request for information.
Buchanan opened a criminal investigation of the three county employees, saying the phone was his wife’s personal cellphone and accusing them of getting the number and trying to pull records for the phone, Horner alleges. But according to the petition, Buchanan did use the cellphone for public business and the requested information should have been turned over to WBTV.
Horner also alleges that Buchanan secretly recorded conversations and started fights with county officials over trivial matters.
Stacy Eggers IV, Buchanan’s attorney, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Barred from clerk’s office
Buchanan’s office is described by Horner as being in state of constant turmoil.
“During Buchanan’s first few months in office, there was considerable turnover with employees either resigning or being fired at the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office and rumors that Sheriff Buchanan was secretly recording conversations,” the petition alleges.
According to the petition, Buchanan got into arguments with county officials, including William Sands, the chairman of the board of commissioners, over trivial matters, making a “mountain out of a mole hill.”
Pam Barlow, clerk of court for Ashe County, barred Buchanan from the clerk’s office unless he made an appointment, Horner said. That’s because Buchanan criticized Barlow for hiring a former employee of the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office whom Buchanan alleged was under investigation for sabotaging his office.
And Buchanan also made public statements to the local media and in meetings in which he disclosed information about civil settlements in a lawsuit connected to a pending homicide case, the petition said. The petition doesn’t say which homicide case.
The crux of Horner’s petition is what Buchanan is alleged to have done to prevent his cellphone records from being disclosed to WBTV, which had filed a public-records request for communications related to Buchanan and the Ashe County Board of Commissioners’ decision to appoint him sheriff on Jan. 17.
Nick Ochsner, a reporter with WBTV, filed the public-records request on April 6. In a April 17 meeting of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, Buchanan made it clear he didn’t like the request.
“I just want the citizens to know that these types of things should not be allowed, they should not interfere with county business, and I think it’s a shame that we’re allowing these sorts of things and having outside reporters to come in here to do something that’s unprecedented and has not happened in the past,” Buchanan said.
Ann Clark, the clerk for the Ashe County Board of Commissioners; Cyrus Hurley, the county’s Information Technology director; and Todd Chapman, the IT technician, eventually worked together to start compiling information to comply with WBTV’s request.
One big issue cropped up almost immediately, according to Horner’s petition: What was Buchanan’s county-issued cellphone number? Clark asked around, but no one seemed to know. At one point, County Manager Sam Yearick gave Hurley a cellphone number, the petition said, but the cellphone wasn’t Buchanan’s.
That cellphone belonged to West Jefferson Town Manager Brantley Price. Records were obtained for the phone, but once the mistake was discovered, the information was destroyed, the petition said. Clark continued trying to get Buchanan’s number. She sent emails on April 13 asking for personal and county-issued cellphone numbers.
From April to June, Clark continued to work to get Buchanan’s number, finally approaching him in person on June 2. Buchanan wrote his cellphone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Clark. Clark was later told by Buchanan that the cellphone number was a personal one belonging to his wife, Melanie Buchanan. Clark had already given that number to Hurley so that he could get records for the phone and even called it, the petition said. The greeting on the phone was, “This is Terry...,” according to the petition.
County Manager Sam Yearick later told Clark that the number was Buchanan’s personal cellphone number after the number had been sent to Carolina West Wireless to pull records. Yearick threatened to fire anyone who brought the records of a personal cellphone number into the office. Clark had Hurley cancel the records request for Buchanan’s cellphone, the petition said.
Later that month, Buchanan launched a criminal investigation into Clark, Hurley and Chapman, Horner alleges. The petition said Buchanan denied that it was a criminal investigation during an interview with an agent with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and said that he had recused himself. But Horner said in the petition that Buchanan had not recused himself and kept tabs on the investigation. Officers with the sheriff’s office interviewed Hurley and Chapman and attempted to interview Clark.
In text messages between Yearick and Buchanan, Buchanan made it clear that the investigation was criminal: “They all think they can do what they want and cover for each other but she (Clark) has violated the law,” according to the petition. In another part of the text messages, Buchanan said “charges will be forthcoming.”
Ochsner only found out that Buchanan’s personal cellphone was used for official business after learning that Commissioner Jeff Rose had used his personal cellphone to conduct official business by texting Buchanan. Rose did not turn over any text messages from his personal cellphone to comply with the public-records request. In a series of back-and-forths between WBTV and Eggers was a letter from Eggers that contained a printed attachment of emails. One of the emails was sent from Buchanan to Eggers on May 31. In the email, Buchanan asked Eggers to call him on his cellphone to discuss an issue at the Ashe County Jail.
According to the petition, Buchanan delayed fulfilling WBTV’s request for six months, and Ochsner still hasn’t gotten all the records he has requested.