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Court clerk says she's 'helping,' others dispute that

LOUISBURG -- The county's Clerk of Court says that allegations of misconduct lodged against her have been politically motivated.

Late last week, media accounts revealed and reporting by The Franklin Times confirmed that Louisburg Attorney Jeffrey Scott Thompson accused Clerk of Court Patricia Burnette Chastain of abusing her power.

Further investigation also revealed that on Jan. 31, District Attorney Mike Waters sent correspondence to Judges John Dunlow, Cindy Sturges and John Davis, alleging that on two occasions during jury selection, Chastain endorsed a candidate, injected politics and distributed gift certificates to jurors -- all actions that either biased the jury and, in one case, caused a jury pool to be dismissed, preventing the courts from trying cases during that session.

"There's maybe more to this," Chastain said last week. "Another political person has come out against me along those same lines.

"I think they're working together."

Waters' allegations against Chastain go back to January of this year and October of 2016.

Thompson's allegations against the clerk go back to the Christmas holiday.

Thompson said Sarah and Adam Diaz called him over the Christmas holiday, alleging that Chastain had come out to their property "to mediate" a property dispute against a neighbor that had already been resolved by a judge's order.

Chastain was accompanied by a Franklin County sheriff's deputy. As a result, Thompson filed a request and received body camera footage that captured the confrontation in the couple's front yard.

In the exchange, Chastain tells Adam Diaz that she has jurisdiction over the entire county and went out to his home on N.C. 98 to resolve the matter.

When Diaz asked if he needed his attorney, Chastain told him no.

During the duration of the incident -- which lasted more than an hour -- Chastain intimated that the Diazes were abusing 911 by calling police against their neighbor -- Ann Gayden.

"... The case had already been resolved in district court, so, in my client's eyes, they didn't know what was going on when the clerk of court shows up at [their] door and says: 'by law, I have to mediate this case.'

"In my opinion, she was going behind a judge's order, trying to use her authority as the clerk of court to try to, I guess, intimidate my clients to let her try to mediate this case, which had already been heard in front of a judge.

"... She further accused them of abusing the 911 system by calling 911 when [Gayden] was ... doing something in violation of the court order.

"[Chastain] terrified them."

That's not Chastain's view of the matter, at all.

When reached by phone, Chastain said the dispute between the neighbors had gotten messy and, at the time, it was her understanding that the matter had not been resolved by a judge.

The matter had been going on for more than two years, which resulted in repeated 911 calls and arrests.

Chastain said she was simply going out to put an end to the matter the afternoon of Dec. 27.

"I went out with the intention of trying to help them," Chastain said, noting that she contacted the sheriff's office so that the deputy who had responded to a dispute the evening before could be on hand to help resolve the matter.

"When I left, I gave them my card," she said. "I thought I had made a friend.

"... I was trying to help them and, honestly, I thought I did."

That was until last week when she was contacted by WRAL news regarding allegations by Thompson and the Diaz family that she abused her powers as clerk of court.

Chastain said she went out there to help after fielding numerous pleas by Gayden for assistance.

"Was I too bold? Maybe. Maybe I didn't say it how I should have said it," Chastain said of her good-will intent to intervene.

Chastain said it was her understanding that a clerk of court can mediate matters, but there is a process, conceding that she may not have followed it appropriately.

"I was out there as the clerk of court because I was concerned," she said. "I thought we had done a great job."

As it stands now, no one has filed any petition to remove Chastain.

"To date," Thompson said, "we have not.

"A lot of this will be how Ms. Chastain handles the situation," he said, "but, it is [something we have thought about]."

For her part, Chastain said she believes her role is to play an active role in resolving matters when she can.

"The people come here all day, every day and for the entire seven years I've been here, I have, at some point in time, gotten in the car and gotten an officer or deputy to come and meet [and visit with disputing parties to resolve a matter].

"... I go out if I feel it's necessary," she said. "... Especially if I'm concerned for them."

It was District Attorney Mike Waters who considered actions by Chastain to be concerning and improper.

In a letter dated Jan. 31, and sent to Chastain and the aforementioned judges, Waters said he was concerned with how Chastain interacted with grand jurors and jurors during the Jan. 27 session of superior court.

During the Jan. 27 session, Waters alleges that Chastain used the occasion to endorse a candidate and gave that candidate the opportunity to address jurors.

And, during a session that began on Oct. 25, 2016, Waters alleges that Chastain distributed gift certificates to potential jurors.

She also injected politics into the jury process, Waters alleges, which necessitated dismissing the jury pool and rendering the court unable to try any cases during that session.

Waters, in his letter, says that he and Judge G. Wayne Abernathy presented their concerns to Chastain following that October 2016 incident.

"[But] this most recent misconduct ... calls into question your ability to provide a fair and impartial jury for the court to conduct trials," Waters said in his letter.

That same day, Chastain responded, via email, to include the initial judges, as well as former Senior resident Superior Court judge Robert Hobgood and McKinley Wooten, interim director of the NC Administrative Office of the Courts.

In that correspondence, Chastain said the allegation that she used her office to endorse a political candidate is not valid, as he was "merely" given the opportunity to speak with the public/jurors -- a courtesy she would extend to anyone.

As for the allegation that she injected politics and caused a jury to be released due to political bias are charges best laid at the feet of Judge Orlando Hudson.

"[Judge Orlando Hudson]continued to elaborate on his political opinions regarding President Donald J. Trump and the Senate Impeachment trial ...," Chastain said in her correspondence.

"We did select nine grand jurors from the pool directly following those comments," she stated. "[Hudson] dismissed the remaining, suggesting they would rather "go home and watch the impeachment."

Immediate attempts to contact Judge Hudson were not successful.

"This politically charged letter serves not only to distort the facts, but to discredit my office," Chastain said in her response to Waters' letter.

"The accusations from over four years ago are an attempt to somehow validate these recent baseless accusations.

"It appears that your intent is to shift blame to my office."

Finally, in Waters' letter, he asked that Chastain refrain from talking to any jurors during any stage of the process and let an assistant handle orientation.

"I regret having to take this action, but your continued misconduct in the area of jury contact is too important to the judicial process for me to ignore," Waters wrote.

He said he hopes that a meeting between he, Chastain and a judge can solve the problem. "We're going to meet at some point in the future to discuss it."

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Members Opinions:
February 21, 2020 at 8:57am
The responsibilities of the Clerk of Superior Court are very broad. The web page of the NC Administrative Office of the Courts lists them as follows:

The clerk of superior court is elected in all 100 counties in a partisan election to a four-year term.


All clerical and record-keeping functions of the superior court and district court
Keeps those records according to rules established by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts
Collects money due to the State or on behalf of parties involved in cases before the courts
Judge of probate – handles the probate of wills (proceedings to determine if a paper writing is a valid will) and the administration of estates of the deceased, minors, and people who are incompetent
Hears other special proceedings such as adoptions, determinations of guardianship for incompetent adults, and partitions of land
Handles the administration of trusts
In criminal matters
Issues arrest and search warrants
Conducts initial appearance hearings for criminal defendants
Exercises the same powers as a magistrate when taking waivers of trial and pleas of guilty to minor littering, traffic, wildlife, boating, marine fisheries, alcoholic beverage, state park recreation, and worthless check offenses
Each clerk has a number of assistants and deputies, which varies by county depending on the volume of business.

Pete Andrews / Gold Sand

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