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Allegations of sexual misconduct with clients against two Transylvania County attorneys — one a county commissioner — are now in the hands of the State Bureau of Investigation, District Attorney Greg Newman told Carolina Pubic Press on Thursday.
Newman confirmed the allegations are regarding attorneys Don Barton and Will Cathey, whose offices share the same building in downtown Brevard. Both deny any criminal activity.
Earlier this week, the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners received a package of information from an anonymous source about Barton and their fellow commissioner, Cathey. The package was stamped confidential, Commissioner Page Lemel told CPP.
She opened her package and only looked at the first page before handing it to County Manager Jaime Laughter.
“The contents were such that we sent everything over to DA Newman,” Lemel said.
Laughter confirmed the county’s receipt of documents.
“Transylvania County has received packets of unsolicited information addressed to some commissioners that did not have to do with typical county business,” Laughter said in an email to CPP. “However, these packets did contain statements that allege criminal acts.”
The information was sent to Newman for review, Lemel said.
Nude photos and text messages about sex were among the contents. Neither of the accused lawyers’ faces appear in the photos. While those alone are not incriminating with regard to illegal conduct — consenting adults can and do share information that way — an enclosed letter to the state Bar Association gave Newman pause.
“There are some allegations against Brevard attorneys that could be ethical issues that the state bar would need to deal with,” Newman said. “There are also criminal allegations.”
When asked the nature of his concern, Newman said it was regarding a “sexual assault allegation.”
CPP also received a copy of materials that appeared to be the same as those described by the DA and county officials.
In North Carolina, lawyers are forbidden to engage in sex with clients, unless they had a relationship that preexisted the legal one.
While such conduct would potentially result in disciplinary action by the state bar, some situations, such as coerced sex or sex in exchange for services or in lieu of fees, could lead to criminal charges.
Sexual assault, which is one of the allegations in this case, according to Newman, would always be a criminal matter.
Lawyers deny allegations of sex with clients
When reached for comment about the contents of the package on Wednesday, Cathey said, “Well, there we go.”
In a half-hour conversation with CPP, Cathey pressed for the details of those accusing him.
“I’ve always tried to make a point of not making improper contact with a client,” Cathey said. If he dates any clients, he does so after their cases are closed — and even then the act is rare. He said it had been years since the last such relationship, though he did not specify exactly how long.
“The case has to be closed and over with,” he said. He added that he never sent lewd pictures or texts to active clients. “Not while I was representing them, no.”
He then briefly denied being a county commissioner and then sighed and said, “Apparently I am.”
“This is just flabbergasting,” Cathey said later. “It’s springing full-grown from the brow of Zeus. … All I have on my side is the truth.”
Barton also vociferously denied any improper or illegal behavior.
“That’s totally false, and it’s never been true,” Barton said of the sexual assault allegations reviewed by the district attorney.
“I haven’t committed any crime,” Barton said. “If someone alleges I committed any kind of crime, I am going to sue them. They can get ready. I don’t care who it is.”
What happens now
Newman said he wants the public to have faith in a fair process.
“Because this information has been delivered to me, I am speaking with the SBI, which I think would be the most appropriate agency to look at this,” he said.
“I am going to ask them to review the materials and determine if they will indeed undertake this investigation.”
Newman said the SBI has not indicated to him whether its agents will investigate the matter.
Brevard Police Chief Phil Harris told CPP that he received an inquiry last month alleging “abuse of power or some kind of improper relationship between lawyers and clients.” He said he emailed the person who provided the tip: “If it truly is sexual assault, encourage the victims to come forward to the police department or the Transylvania County Sheriff’s office and we will investigate it.” Harris said he has heard nothing since then.
Separately, Cathey has come under fire from fellow Transylvania County commissioners for sporadic attendance at commissioner meetings, according to a June article in the Transylvania Times.
Voters elected him to the post last year. Cathey has run for several offices before and was the mayor of Rosman for more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated slightly to clarify Brevard Police Chief Phil Harris’ statements.
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