Let’s Make Sense of the Wake County Register of Deeds Mess | News
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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Let’s Make Sense of the Wake County Register of Deeds Mess

Posted by on Wed, Dec 13, 2017 at 8:59 AM

On the one hand, it was obvious from the beginning that this is where we’d end up. The same day Wake County manager Jim Hartmann and District Attorney Lorrin Freeman announced an investigation into missing funds at the Register of Deeds office—later totaled at $2.3 million over a decade—Laura Riddick, the longtime register of deeds, retired. Hartmann and Riddick said at the time that Riddick was retiring because of illness, not the investigation. But the coincidence was a little much. Still, there’s something jarring about seeing a once-well-liked public official hit with six felony charges alleging that she embezzled more than $926,000.
  • “Former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick faces charges of embezzling nearly a million dollars in six indictments returned by a county grand jury Tuesday. Riddick and three other Register of Deeds employees are charged in sixteen indictments related to money under their control.”
  • “With no prior record, Riddick likely faces a sentence of between five and seven years per count, officials said. A judge has set conditions of release for Riddick in the form of a $700,000 secured bond. Riddick has executed a deed of trust for her home in that amount to secure her release, court officials said.”
  • I hear that Riddick is expected to turn herself in this morning.
  • From the N&O: “Riddick, a Republican, held the office from 1996 until her resignation earlier this year at the start of the investigation. She was elected to six terms in all. … Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, tweeted that the news about Riddick is ‘heartbreaking.’ ‘Many @WakeCountyGOP people worked to elect her and fully trusted her,’ Woodhouse tweeted. ‘Simply a tragedy.’”
  • “By the end of the probe, investigators determined that at least $2.3 million could not be accounted for in an office that takes in about $14 million a year, a large portion of which is cash. … What might account for some of the missing money, Freeman has said, is instances in which clerks decided someone was indigent, or too poor to pay fees, and issued a birth certificate or marriage license without noting the decision on records maintained through the years. The audit also might not account for cashier errors, Freeman said.”

WHAT IT MEANS: As Tommy Goldsmith has previously reported, part of the reason this went on was that Wake County doesn’t treat the Register of Deeds office (or, for that matter, the sheriff’s office) like other county agencies, as they are led by elected officials who jealously guard their turf. That means less invasive financial auditing that could catch fraud, which is how an alleged fraud was able to continue undetected for nearly a decade. As Freeman told Goldsmith a few months back: “Where there are not sufficiently detailed audits done, it opens up the opportunity for these things to occur. It can be as simple as the computer system is set up in such a way that it makes these kinds of things hard to be detected.”

WHAT'S NEXT: I’m admittedly getting ahead of myself, but the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news was that Riddick was obviously going to plead out. The threat of five to seven years per count, and six counts, has to be something of an inducement. But even if Riddick does want to deal—I should disclaim here that indictments are not convictions, and that Riddick is presumed innocent and has every right to fight this in court—it’s not clear how willing Freeman will be to play ball. A public official stealing from the public trough doesn’t usually merit leniency, and there’s no one up the chain for Riddick to roll on. (Any lawyers out there want to hip me on what you see as next steps? Hit me up at jbillman@indyweek.com.)
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

DECENCY WINS IN ALABAMA!

You guys already know the headline: Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in the reddest state in the country, an upset that would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago. Defeating an alleged child molester is something of a low bar for democracy, but hey, we cleared it. Of course, our enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that, without The Washington Post’s diligent reporting, Moore—a racist, homophobic would-be theocrat who was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court—would probably have won easily instead of losing 50–48.
  • “Mr. Jones’s victory could have significant consequences on the national level, snarling Republicans’ legislative agenda in Washington and opening, for the first time, a realistic but still difficult path for Democrats to capture the Senate next year. It amounted to a stinging snub of President Trump, who broke with much of his party and fully embraced Mr. Moore’s candidacy, seeking to rally support for him in the closing days of the campaign.”
  • “Taking the stage over an hour after The Associated Press called the race, Mr. Moore refused to concede and instructed a subdued crowd to ‘wait on God and let this process play out.’ ‘Go home and sleep on it,’ he told supporters.”
  • Voters in Alabama’s cities and most affluent suburbs overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Moore’s candidacy, an ominous sign for Republicans on the ballot next year in upscale districts. … These highly educated and high-income voters, while often open to supporting Republicans, are uneasy with the hard-edged politics of President Trump and part of the reason his approval ratings are so dismal. If Republican candidates facing well-off voters next year do not find a way to separate themselves from the president, they will face a punishing midterm election next year.”
  • Black voters turned out in force, handing Mr. Jones a decisive lead in Alabama’s cities and predominantly black rural counties. In Jefferson County, home to Birmingham and its whiter suburbs, turnout exceeded the 2014 governor’s race by about 30 percent, and Mr. Jones nearly matched Hillary Clinton’s vote total there. Other populous, heavily African-American counties, including Montgomery and Dallas County, where Selma is, also exceeded their 2014 turnout.”

MEANWHILE, IN THE WHITE HOUSE: Trump managed two endorse two losing candidates in this race—first Luther Strange in the primary, then Moore in the general—a sign that his clout isn’t what he assumed it to be even in the friendliest of terrains. Per Politico, “Doug Jones didn’t just defeat Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race on Tuesday night—he administered the most crushing and embarrassing political blow of President Donald Trump’s young presidency.”
  • “White House aides on Tuesday night were bracing for fallout, in person and on Twitter, from President Trump after the Republican candidate he vigorously backed over his aides’ objections lost a Deep South Senate seat to a Democrat. Advisers acknowledged that Mr. Trump, who jumped in with a full-throated endorsement of Roy S. Moore without telling most of his advisers, rarely assumes responsibility for a misstep, and they anticipated him looking for someone to blame. Several still working inside the White House gates hoped that person would be Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist who had publicly said Mr. Trump’s base was with Mr. Moore and suggested the movement would march on without the leader of the party.”
  • “In private conversations, several West Wing advisers expressed relief that Mr. Moore would not be joining the Republican Senate majority, and noted that the vote for a tax code revamp was expected to take place before Mr. Jones is sworn in.”

WHAT IT MEANS: In terms of immediate impact, that last line is particularly important. It will probably take Alabama about two weeks to certify the election, which means Jones will effectively join the Senate in January. In 2010, when Scott Brown shocked Democrats by winning in Massachusetts, Senate Democrats held off on a big Obamacare vote before he was seated sixteen days after the election. Expect no such courtesy from Mitch McConnell. After all, with Jones in place, Bob Corker a no, and Susan Collins on the fence, the big tax-reform bill would be in serious peril—or, at least, the conference committee would have to bend it to their concerns rather than those of the right-wingers in the House.
  • In medium-term impacts, this is a huge blow to Trump and especially Steve Bannon, who I imagine will now be ostracized entirely. But it also put the Senate very much in play. As a Dem strategist told an MSNBC analyst and former DSCC flack months ago, to take back the Senate despite a rough calendar in 2018, they needed Nevada, Arizona, and an act of God. Check off one out of three.

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  • Beyond that, though, there’s a sense that if Dems can win in Alabama of all places—no matter how abysmal the Republican was—they can compete everywhere. The more confident they go, the better their candidate recruitment goes, which means more competitive races next year. And even in long-shot races, Alabama showed that having a qualified candidate there in case the opponent blows up opens up the possibility of all kinds of upsets.

This post was excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

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