By Stan Welch – Since a story appeared in a recent issue of The Journal concerning a possible violation of the federal Hatch Act, further information has developed which sheds several different shades of light on the alleged incident.
Briefly, Councilman and mayoral candidate Mack Durham filed a complaint with the Williamston Police Department, alleging that Town employee Tim Hood provided local businessman and political gadfly Larry Smith with politically motivated information against Durham.
Unconfirmed rumors alleged the information concerned a series of financial judgments against Durham and his business.
Jay Grubbs, who was the Williamston police chief at the time, passed the information along to state and federal law enforcement for any further action. He subsequently decided to resume his retirement from law enforcement, according to a statement given to The Journal at that time.
Grubbs has since decided to expound on his decision to once again retire. In a recent telephone interview with Grubbs, a 32 year veteran of law enforcement, he clarified that statement, and also recanted his claim that the decision to retire was totally his own.
“The atmosphere in which I left the Williamston department actually began before this particular incident,” said Grubbs. “Since taking over as Chief, I had started a crime watch program in town. Councilman Durham invited me to send some officers to a meeting he was hosting to explain the program, which I did. Town administrator Phyllis Lollis didn’t like that and she got on me about it. She said it looked like I was favoring Durham. I told her it was just doing my job.”
Then, Councilman Durham called the department on Friday, August 13 to complain that Hood had passed political information to Smith while on the job. Grubbs said he told Durham he would have to come in to the department and make the complaint in person, which Durham did on the following Monday.
Grubbs said he felt that it would be improper for his department to conduct the investigation and he contacted state and federal agencies, who confirmed his judgment and instructed him to pass the complaint up the food chain, so to speak. He says he did so; and that within a day or two, he was called to Lollis’s office.
“She was very upset because I had failed to call her, and during our conversation, she said she had lost confidence in my ability to run the department. I have been around long enough to know that a department can’t function under those circumstances and I asked if she wanted my resignation. She said if I offered it, she would accept; and I said I would leave on November the first to allow time for an orderly transition within the department. She refused, saying it would be effective immediately.”
Lollis tells a completely different story.
According to her, no political material was passed to Smith by Hood to begin with. “There was no Hatch Act violation,” Lollis said. “The documents Tim gave to Mr. Smith were related to an earlier accident when a vehicle on Mr. Smith’s rollback wrecker rolled off and hit a town vehicle. He had it repaired at his expense, rather than make an insurance claim. I didn’t even hear about any judgments against Dr. Durham until the Chief and I spoke.”
The judgments against Durham’s business are a matter of public record; a fact which Dr. Durham also acknowledged in an interview with The Journal.
“We have had some rough patches in the recent economic climate. We regret that and we are working our way through it. There’s nothing I can do about it, except to remind people it’s really private business. I’m sorry someone saw fit to make it political ammunition.”
According to Lollis, Grubbs raised the issue of whether he had lost her confidence. “I told him that wasn’t my call. It was up to the Mayor to decide if he still had confidence in the chief. I did tell him that he absolutely should have gone to the Mayor with the allegations because they involved a town employee. I don’t care who it is, including me; if a town employee is doing something illegal, or accused of it, the Mayor should know it.”
“He got mad at me when I told him he needed to go to the mayor,” Lollis said. “He also lied to me about the incident report itself. He said two of his officers wanted him to accept a handwritten version and not enter into the files where it could be obtained later by a Freedom of Information request. The captain and lieutenant will give statements that it was the Chief’s idea to keep the incident report a secret. Five different officers reported that the incident report had been taken, but the Chief never went to the Mayor with it.”
Lollis claims that Grubbs never tendered his resignation to her, nor mentioned retiring. “He told the Mayor that he was going to retire because of all the politics he had to deal with. That’s funny in a way, because I warned him over and over to stay away from the politics.”
Grubbs told The Journal that politics are widespread throughout the town administration and the police department.
“I was concerned at first about talking about this, because I am unemployed and I need to be working,” he said. “But I am not surrendering my honor or my oath of office over something like this. When politics becomes more important than professional law enforcement, both the department and the town suffers,” Grubbs said.
Efforts to reach Larry Smith, with Lollis’s help, were unsuccessful.
“He’ll tell you there was nothing political in that envelope Tim Hood gave him. And he’ll tell you that he never called Jimmy Cox about a Hatch Violation,” Lollis told The Journal.
Cox, an attorney in Williamston and a former town judge during the Phillip Clardy administration, told The Journal, “Well, I was at my residence when all this happened with Smith and Hood. So I don’t know how I would have been aware of it. I sure didn’t suddenly decide to just call Mack Durham and tell him there had been a violation of the Hatch Act. I had a reason, and that reason was a phone call from Larry Smith.”