Cherokee County sheriff's squad car
A sheriff's squad car parked outside the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

A North Carolina sheriff who recently talked on the radio about repeatedly turning down bribes never reported any of the incidents to the district attorney, even though attempted bribes are a felony in North Carolina.

In his weekly Friday morning show on Murphy Christian radio station WKRK, Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer said April 19 that he warns people considering running for public office that, despite the rewarding work, they may face temptations.

“People will come and try to get you to do things you shouldn’t do,” Palmer said.

A few minutes later in the segment, as he talked the choices one makes every day to be a moral person, his story quickly evolved into a tale of attempted bribery of an elected sheriff.

“I can tell you over the last four years, I’ve had people try to give me money, try to bribe me, try to do all kind of different things,” Palmer said.

That was news to District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch, she said when asked about Palmer’s claim last week.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of this,” she said. “That’s pretty disturbing.”

Hornsby Welch checked with the other offices in her seven-county district and said they had not heard about the bribery attempt, either.

Palmer discussed the issue with WKRK host Tim Radford, who allows the sheriff time to talk about community and law enforcement issues every Friday.

“You got to have enough character about you to resist it and to push back and say, ‘No, that’s not what I’m about. I don’t operate that way,’” Palmer said on the air.

“So that’s why my check didn’t clear,” Radford quipped.

Palmer continued unprompted. He didn’t want to name names, the sheriff said, but he recounted in detail one incident in which a man approached him with a problem.

“He had a bunch of papers and he laid them on the table and wanted me to help him,” Palmer said. When they were done talking, Palmer started to gather up the papers, and, according to Palmer, the man said, “Nah, just leave them there.”

Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer
Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer

Palmer said he escorted the man out of his office and returned to the table.

“I started collecting the papers up, and when I did, there was $500 — five, one-hundred-dollar bills — under the papers. I had to grab some employees and tell them what happened, and we had to track this guy down and take his money back to him,” Palmer said on the show.

The story has a moral twist. Palmer, who is also a pastor, said, “I’ll tell you a funny story about that guy, about that person.”

Not three months later, he said, a detective arrested a drug dealer.

“They were giving information about people, who they thought was corrupt, who was involved in the dirty side of politics,” Palmer said.

“And they made the comment to the detective, ‘We know Sheriff Palmer won’t do that because so-and-so tried to give him $500, and he gave it back and he wouldn’t take it.’ ”

The law on attempted bribery

Attempting to bribe a public official is a crime in North Carolina.

Rather than track the man down to give him the money back, Hornsby Welch said Palmer should have told her office.

“It seems like that immediately ought to be investigated,” Hornsby Welch said. “You want people to know they can’t do this.”

Jeffrey Welty, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina School of Government, told CPP last week that the sheriff turning down the bribery offer does not keep the attempt from being a crime.

“Assuming that the bribe was offered in connection with the sheriff’s official duties, then yes, offering a bribe is a Class F felony even if the bribe is not accepted,” Welty said.

Other Class F felonies include involuntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon on a government officer.

A Class F felony has a maximum punishment of almost five years in prison, according to the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.

Palmer downplays ‘bribery’ attempts

When asked several follow-up questions to clarify the matter by CPP last week, Palmer downplayed the event.

An elderly man who came to Palmer’s office wanted to talk about evicting a tenant from a rental property, Palmer wrote in an email, saying the man had already filed the proper legal paperwork.

“I could not further help, nor did he need any help,” Palmer said. “He stated he wanted to give me money for my reelection campaign, but the amount was over the threshold of what can be accepted, and I did not accept it per state law.”

State campaign finance rules limit how much a donor can give to a candidate. In 2018, when Palmer ran for reelection, that amount was $5,200. Palmer appears to have raised $3,500 altogether during his run for sheriff in 2018, records from the Cherokee County Board of Elections show.

However, since the man offered cash, another law applies, said state Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon.

“All contributions greater than $50 must be in check, money order” or a few other methods, Gannon said. “That prevents people from giving people bags of cash and a wink.”

Palmer said after the interaction at his office, “I contacted my attorney and lead investigator immediately and sought legal advice on how to proceed.”

Was the offer illegal? According to Palmer, it would be hard to prove.

“It was of my opinion that if it really was a campaign contribution or some other type of illegal offering, it was blurry at best and would be nearly impossible to prove what the intent was,” Palmer said.

Hornsby Welch said that if Palmer had reported it to her, she would have called the State Bureau of Investigation to see if the agency would investigate it.

Law enforcement officers, including sheriffs, have wide discretion as to which crimes they elect to charge, said Hornsby Welch, Palmer and Welty in separate conversations.

However, bribery is a “really serious matter even when the public official is a stand-up person who can’t be bribed,” said Thomas Maher, executive director of Indigent Defense Services. “Even small levels of corruption undermine confidence in the government and the justice system in particular.”

When told of what Palmer said on the radio, Maher said he didn’t have enough details to tell whether there could have been a successful prosecution. The scheme as described “certainly looks like a not terribly sophisticated bribe,” Maher said.

But that still meant any law enforcement official in that situation shouldn’t just let it go.

“You would certainly want to do more than just return the money,” Maher said. “You want to make sure that people understand that you took this very seriously. This isn’t something that didn’t work. This is something that was a real problem.”

Palmer’s office runs the Cherokee County Detention Center, which the State Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating for allegations of inmate abuse. Several employees have been fired or resigned in recent months.

Another SBI investigation resulted in felony charges against a former guard. A third SBI investigation, related to the death of an inmate, is being reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office for possible charges.

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