General

SBI investigating Smoot over electioneering concerns

Sep. 22—OXFORD — State Bureau of Investigation officials have confirmed that they’re investigating whether Granville County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Smoot improperly used his office to jump-start his unaffiliated campaign for sheriff.

SBI chief spokeswoman Angie Grube said the investigation is ongoing.

She said the bureau fielded a request for an investigation from District Attorney Mike Waters on Aug. 31, and the issue is whether Smoot “improperly used his position to organize his campaign and enlist support from employees of the Granville County Sheriff’s Office while they were being paid.”

Beyond that, “no additional information is available” from the bureau, she said on Wednesday.

Waters confirmed that his office “requested the assistance of the SBI,” after County Attorney Jim Wrenn called its attention to a late-June county Board of Elections hearing that focused on whether Smoot had submitted the requisite number of petition signatures to run for sheriff as an unaffiliated candidate.

The board held the hearing after the Granville County Republican Party challenged Smoot’s candidacy. A GOP lawyer, Boyd Sturges, was able to question Smoot and secured from him admissions that he had discussed his political plans with deputies and staff during two meetings at the sheriff’s office in late 2021.

Wrenn emailed Waters on June 26 — a Sunday, two days after Smoot testified and a day before the elections board rejected the GOP challenge — to “let [Waters] know that Chief Deputy Smoot admitted to conduct that I believe may constitute a felony.”

The county attorney specifically cited the state law that addresses the embezzlement of funds by public officers and trustees. In addition to out-and-out theft, the statute speaks to acts that “willfully and corruptly use or misapply” public money or property.

Wrenn told Waters that he would have a transcript of the hearing “prepared as promptly as possible.” That was delivered to the DA’s sometime before July 11.

Waters said the request to the SBI from his office came “after reviewing the transcript and applicable law.” He added that Wrenn’s concerns “did not involve conduct that would be under the jurisdiction of the N.C. State Board of Elections.”

Asked for comment, Smoot on Wednesday said he was “unaware of an investigation by the SBI targeting myself or my campaign,” and that he stands “by my integrity to always conduct myself above reproach.”

“Since the beginning of my campaign to become the next sheriff of Granville County, I have been the subject of multiple attacks by the Republican Party to discredit my candidacy,” he said, noting the decision of the county Board of Elections and adding that he’s “withstood numerous accusations in an effort to drive me from the political race.”

“If such an investigation arises, then the origins are clearly a political attack against me and my supporters,” Smoot said. “As an independent candidate, I pose a threat to a political machine that will stop at nothing to gain an unfair advantage in this election. I maintain my innocence and will continue to fight these unjust and unfair political attacks.”

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Smoot is one of three candidates running for sheriff this fall. The others are Democratic Party nominee Robert Fountain Jr. and Republican nominee Vance Johnson.

The winner will replace suspended Sheriff Brindell Wilkins, who is under indictment in a training-records falsification scandal that’s already yielded a prison sentence for a former deputy, Chad Coffey, who was convicted of obstructing justice. Wilkins testified in Coffey’s trial and admitted that he ordered Coffey to falsify the results of some shooting qualifications.

The scandal also prompted the resignation of former Sheriff Charles Noblin, as one of his shooting qualifications was among those at issue. Noblin was the appointed sheriff filling in for Wilkins.

Noblin’s resignation helped land Smoot in hot water, as the first of the two November 2021 meetings where he discussed his political plans was an all-hands affair he called soon after Noblin stepped down. Smoot’s attorneys at the Board of Elections hearing characterized it as an attempt to stabilize the department, and said deputies asked Smoot whether he intended to run.

Smoot testified that he told them he was thinking about it. He announced he was running during a subsequent meeting with deputies and other sheriff’s office staffers.

Granville County GOP Vice Chairman Michael Magnanti testified during the Board of Elections hearing that Johnson — who’s the assistant chief of the Henderson Police Department — had alerted him to a possible “campaign meeting” at the sheriff’s office.

In questioning Smoot, Sturges got him to concede that the meetings were held in a government building while at least some of the deputies were on duty. Smoot also conceded that there was inappropriate electioneering.

His lawyer, Tom Currin, told the Board of Elections there is a recording of at least one of the meetings. Neither side put the recording into evidence for the board.

The current sheriff, John Hardy, also testified and told the board that he’d instructed deputies that “they were able to support who they wanted” in the election but “had to do it off county time and couldn’t use county resources.” The Granville County Commissioners appointed Hardy sheriff in December 2021 to serve the balance of Wilkins’ term.

Magnanti on Wednesday afternoon said he’s “not surprised that there is an active investigation” given Smoot’s admissions in the hearing.

“What I am shocked about is Granville County Sheriff John Hardy heard his chief deputy admit to knowingly violate the law during sworn testimony, and is ignoring his sworn duty to act,” Magnanti said. “Sheriff Hardy is doing nothing, and to me that is shocking. Granville County deserves better than the ‘good ol’ boy’ network.”

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@henderson dispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

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