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At least four candidates seeking office in Western North Carolina cities and towns this fall have criminal records.
Carolina Public Press conducted a search of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety Offender Public Information database and crosschecked with voter registration records for candidates in the state’s 18 westernmost counties.
This process identified four candidates with criminal histories:
Michael David Rogers, 52, is running for Highlands town commissioner in Macon and Jackson counties. Records show he has eight misdemeanor convictions for passing worthless checks stemming from incidents between April and November 2003. Three Class 2 misdemeanor convictions were in Henderson County and five Class 1 misdemeanor convictions were in Macon County. He received probation.
Charles Herman Schmidt, 35, is running for the Sylva council in Jackson County. He has an August 2006 conviction for Level 2 Driving While Intoxicated in New Hanover County on Feb. 4, 2006, for which he received probation.
William Alan “Justin” Phillips, 35, is running for mayor of Maggie Valley in Haywood County. He has four class H felony convictions in Buncombe County for obtaining property by false pretenses stemming from incidents between July and November 2004. He received probation.
Walter “Chub” Pettit Jr., 73, is running for Rosman Board of Aldermen in Transylvania County. Records show he was convicted on Jan. 18, 1989, in Transylvania County of having received stolen goods on March 10, 1988, a class H felony. He later faced three charges related to the possession and sale of illegal drugs in Transylvania County on Jan. 23, 1989, all class H felonies, for which he was convicted on March 8, 1990. He received probation.
While some individuals may have avoided detection, it appears that no other WNC candidates have records of criminal convictions in North Carolina.
While convicted felons cannot initially run for office in North Carolina, once they have completed their sentences they may have their rights restored and seek office. Those convicted of misdemeanors are not prevented from seeking office. CPP is providing information about these candidates, not to challenge their eligibility to seek office, but to educate voters, who can then decide whether these criminal histories should affect their decisions at the ballot box.
CPP contacted each candidate with an apparent record to discuss the charges against them. Their reactions varied.
Michael David Rogers
Rogers talked briefly with CPP by phone on Thursday. Asked if he would discuss his criminal record in advance of this article’s release, he responded, “Not really. That’s not anything. That’s in the past,” then he hung up.
Rogers is one of four candidates running for three seats on the Highlands Board of Commissioners. Each of his three opponents is an incumbent.
Charles Herman Schmidt
Also contacted by phone on Thursday, Schmidt thanked CPP for giving him “the benefit of the doubt” and allowing to explain what happened.
Schmidt said at the time of the 2004 incident he had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and had returned to the coast to visit some college friends.
After going to a bar, Schmidt said he underestimated how much he’d had to drink and made the mistake of trying to drive back to his friends’ condo when an officer stopped him.
“You’re 24 or 25 years old and you don’t make the best decisions,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt he doesn’t have a drinking problem and hasn’t had any other run-ins with the law.
He is one of five candidates for three seats on the Sylva council. Schmidt’s opponents include one current incumbent, with two sitting commissioners deciding not to defend their open seats as they instead run for mayor.
William Alan ‘Justin’ Phillips
William Alan “Justin” Phillips, who owns a coffee shop in Maggie Valley, is one of two contenders on the ballot for the mayor’s seat in that Haywood County town. However, the previous mayor died after the filing period and another candidate with ties to town government is also campaigning as a write-in.
Phillips’ criminal history became public knowledge earlier this year when The Mountaineer in Waynesville approached him about his convictions and he agreed to be interviewed. Other media in the area have also noted his colorful past
The Mountaineer article said Phillips admitted to having made mistakes while battling a drug problem and has trouble recalling details of what he actually did at the time, though it involved cashing large checks in other people’s names. Some of those checks turned out to be on closed or bogus accounts.
Speaking with Carolina Public Press by phone on Thursday, Phillips largely confirmed these aspects of the newspaper’s article. He emphasized that his conviction was not for writing thousands of dollars in bad checks, but primarily for depositing bad checks he says he received from other people. He said there’s been some confusion over that distinction.
He also noted that he had been unaware of the charges he was facing while he was living out of state and trying to put his life back together. When learned of the charges, he turned himself in, he said.
“Circumstances in life can make us do some interesting things,” he said. “I was the common denominator in all of my problems.”
Phillips told CPP that he never experimented with drugs when he was younger but began doing so in his early 20s during a relationship with a woman he was dating who “liked to party.”
He described his successful career in radio before he became involved in drugs, as well as his success other business enterprises after he went clean.
“What happened 12 or 13 years ago, happened 12 or 13 years ago,” he said.
Phillips said the negative experience has imparted some important lessons. “For a four-year period in my life … I went off the rails,” he said. “It’s OK to derail sometimes. You can rebound.”
He described his drug period as educating him about unscrupulous individuals, something that’s been helpful and business and he believes would be valuable as mayor. “I can spot a con man from a mile away,” he said.
Asked whether he had begun using “Justin Phillips” rather than his legal name, William Alan Phillips, to avoid attention about his record, the candidate denied that was the case.
Phillips said his use of “Justin” dates to his days as a radio personality on country and rock music stations in Jacksonville, Florida, where his on-air nickname was “Justin Case.” “Justin” is the name by which everyone knows him today, he said.
Phillips said he could understand why someone might be suspicious. given the town where he’s seeking office. “There’s something very peculiar about Maggie Valley,” he said. “It does some to attract an unsavory type.”
Walter ‘Chub’ Pettit Jr.
In one case, a criminal history has already proven not to be an impediment to election and appears unlikely to affect the candidate’s re-election chances.
Walter “Chub” Pettit Jr. is a current member of the Rosman board of aldermen. He’s unopposed as he seeks another term.
Pettit talked with Carolina Public Press by phone Thursday about his record. A disabled veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange, Pettit said he went through a period in the 1980s when he had trouble with alcohol and drugs. His drug convictions stem from that period.
But Pettit said he recovered from those problems and has been clean for more than 20 years.
Regarding the conviction for receiving stolen goods, Pettit said he was operating a surplus store and received some items that later turned out to be stolen. Prosecutors pursued him instead of those who had taken the items, he said.
“We all have skeletons in our closets,” he said, pointing to the many people who cheat on their taxes. “But you live and learn.”
Pettit described his pride in the town’s progress since he’s been on the board.
CPP also talked with multiple sources in Transylvania County who confirmed that Pettit’s colorful history is well-known and does not seem to have affected his ability to serve.
Arrested, not convicted
One candidate who came to CPP’s attention during this process was Bob Spitzen, who’s running for mayor in Flat Rock in Henderson County against the current mayor.
“I was arrested four times (in Flat Rock),” he told CPP during a phone interview Friday. “That’s why I’m running for mayor.”
In addition to being thrown into jail on trespassing charges in Haywood County, Spitzen has also been arrested multiple times over the last 25 years for various acts of civic activism in Pennsylvania and in Wilmington.
But none of the charges ever stuck.
In Wilmington, Spitzen was convicted of trespassing on the property of a city official, but appealed the case, which was dismissed when the other party no longer wanted to pursue it. As a result, Spitzen’s record is officially clean in North Carolina.
Spitzen describes himself as a “provocateur.”
“That’s a couple of things (that led to arrests) out of 50 opportunities,” he said. “Good for me.”
“I get involved in whatever appears at the moment that it seems I should get involved in,” he said.
Spitzen also explained his sudden withdrawal from the race during one of his candidacies for Wilmington city government in 2001. The decision came because of the 9/11 attacks, he said.
“I was from New York,” he said. “I had been on Wall Street. I knew some of those people.”
At a forum that afternoon, Spitzen said he announced that he didn’t have his heart in the race and was dropping out.
Conducting the search
Except for the information that came to light about Spitzen, CPP’s candidate research did not include records from outside North Carolina. It’s entirely possible that some candidates have criminal histories in other places, but that was beyond the scope of CPP’s search. Also outside the scope of this search were records of any convictions on federal charges.
Due to limited information in voter records, some candidates who are using different versions of their names or who have changed their names would not have been identifiable in the state’s criminal database. Anyone using an entirely fake identification, including a new birthdate, would also have gone undetected.
Another group who would have avoided being flagged includes anyone who was charged but not convicted, or had convictions set aside or overturned on appeal.
CPP’s search did screen out a large number of false matches using birthdays, which are given in the offender database and searchable in the voter registration database.
For instance, if John Q. Public is seeking office and appears to be a match for a John Q. Public who had a felony conviction and was born on July 4, 1976, then CPP searched the voter record under that name for the 07/04/1976 birthday to see whether they are the same person. In the vast majority of cases, this process showed that they were not the same individuals.
But in the four cases identified, the birthdays matched.
In many other cases, very near matches of candidates with unusual names with people who had different birthdays and were convicted of crimes in the same area of North Carolina suggested that close relatives may have had criminal histories. But candidates’ families were not the focus of this CPP investigation.
In such cases, it’s also possible that the birthday in either the criminal database or the voter registration database was typed incorrectly into a computer. CPP had no way to check for this type of error.
One challenging aspect of investigating candidates was the mixed bag of public information about candidates from county to county. In most cases, a full list of candidate is available on the county board of elections website.
But that’s not always true. Some county websites provide only the sample ballot, which has less information about candidates’ full names.
Other counties have nothing about this year’s elections on their sites. In most cases the sample ballots appear on the North Carolina Board of Elections site, where they are broken down by county.
For some reason Avery County’s sample ballot was missing from the state site, but county election officials did email CPP a copy of their ballot upon request.
One drawback in trying to check candidates’ background using sample ballots alone is that these documents don’t provide the full names under which the person has registered to vote. With many candidates using their middle names or nicknames on the ballot, this can lead to confusion, especially if other voters in the same area have names that match the one the actual candidate is using on the ballot.
Voters who are interested in researching more about candidates using a search engine or other online tool, can attempt to follow some of the same procedures CPP did as they try to educate themselves ahead of Election Day.
But researchers should be careful to avoid being fooled false matches due to some of the issues CPP encountered.
In addition to the type of background search that CPP conducted, voters could be frustrated in efforts to seek other information about candidates when only the sample ballot is available.
For instance, knowing the full names under which candidates registered to vote can also help show pinpoint their party affiliation and voting history.