RALEIGH — Surry County Commissioner Paul Johnson has been fined $1,000 by the North Carolina Board of Elections. According to a letter from that entity to Johnson, Johnson failed to submit an organizational report and an expense report for his legal expense fund.
Johnson was indicted on four counts of obtaining property under false pretense in early February. The indictments followed an investigation into the expense reports of Johnson and other officials and was conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation.
The indictment alleges that Johnson submitted travel vouchers in conjunction with meetings he either did not attend or rode to with another individual who also submitted a travel voucher. According to Johnson, he is accused of falsely reporting about $4,500 in travel expenses to the county.
Following Johnson’s indictment Roger and Judy Dehart, of Ararat, circulated a letter soliciting monetary contributions for a legal defense fund for Johnson. According to the Board of Elections that fund must be treated much like a public official’s campaign fund, reporting contributions and expenditures on a quarterly basis.
The May 11 letter from Deputy Director of the State Board of Elections Amy Strange informs Johnson that any “elected officer raising legal expense fund donations from donors other than themselves, their spouse, their parents or their siblings must register a legal expense fund with the State Board of Elections.”
Strange’s letter went on to inform Johnson that an “organizational report” needed to be filed within ten calendar days of the date on which the legal expense fund was created. The letter alleges that Johnson’s defense fund failed to submit that report and a subsequent “first quarter report” which was due on April 14.
The Board of Elections letter went on to inform Johnson that he had been fined a total of $1,000, $500 for each missing report. The letter also informs Johnson that he had until May 26 to file a response in order to appeal the decision.
In February the Deharts began distributing a letter which asked for donations to support Johnson’s legal defense. In a February interview regarding the letter Judy Dehart stated that Johnson did not ask for help with his legal defense, though when she and her husband approached Johnson with the idea he said any assistance would be welcome.
Dehart also said “I’m not really sure how the account was set up. We asked Paul if something had been set up, he gave us that (bank) information.”
Dehart said that contributions that are collected are given directly to Johnson or Johnson’s attorney, Scott Lowry. Dehart emphasized that her role was simply advocating for contributions. She added that she was not aware of any financial reporting requirements for the legal fund and only composed the letter soliciting contributions because Johnson was “a good friend.”
A phone call seeking an update was not immediately returned by Strange. However, the State Board of Elections does not have any documentation other than the notice of noncompliance and the notice of penalty assessment listed in conjunction with the legal expense fund on its online database.
Johnson confirmed that he has yet to file a response to the Board of Elections, though he said that he is in the process of preparing the response and sorting out the matter. Johnson also stated that he was not aware of any reporting requirements when the legal defense fund was started.
Johnson said that upon being notified of the filing requirements by Surry County Board of Elections Director Susan Jarrell he “suspended” the fund and no longer took any contributions for his legal defense. Johnson did not disclose how much had been contributed to the fund prior to “suspending” it.
Johnson said that though he did not start the legal expense fund he did set up the bank account for the fund. The commissioner reiterated that he is working to right the situation with the State Board of Elections and that the appropriate paperwork will be submitted once complete.