HAMLET — City police are still under the State Bureau of Investigation’s microscope, state and local officials confirmed Wednesday.
N.C. Department of Justice spokeswoman Noelle Talley and District Attorney Reese Saunders said an SBI inquiry into criminal allegations against city and county officials is not over. Hamlet City Council members weren’t sure Tuesday night whether the matter had been settled.
“This is a criminal investigation that is ongoing,” Talley said. “It was referred to the SBI at the request of the local district attorney. The investigation involves members and former members of the Hamlet Police Department and a county judge. As far as the (Hamlet City) Council keeping information from the public, they are not even capable of that. They do not know any details of the case, and will not know until it is made known to them.”
The confirmation follows accusations by former Mayor Abbie Covington during Hamlet’s most recent council meeting. Covington said the council was deliberately withholding information from the public and demanded answers on behalf of unnamed citizens whose vehicles were allegedly seized and disposed of illegally by the police department.
Council members and Mayor William Bayless explained the city had taken no recent action and that the SBI investigation was ongoing. They said that until they received a report from the district attorney, they were legally prohibited from discussing matters pertaining to the case.
“That is the reason we removed Ms. Covington from the agenda,” Councilman Johnathan Buie said. “We are not keeping information from anyone. This is just a matter of legality. We don’t discuss a case until it is closed.”
Covington, who had several supporters at the council meeting, thought otherwise and said she suspected she would be removed from the agenda; instead, she opted to take advantage of the five-minute speaking time offered to any attendees.
During her speech, she brought up several points of the investigation that began in November. They included two sums of money totaling $9,515 reserved for the police department’s use for crushing, towing and storing seized vehicles.
“There are rumors being spread by members of this council that no money was ever missing,” Covington said. “You can lay that rumor to rest. They told you as far as they were concerned, the issue of the money was finished. I feel like they have the responsibility to share what has been done up to this point. People deserve to know.”
Discussion during Covington’s comments highlighted uncertainty over whether the SBI had completed its report.
“Nothing has been done because the DA has not released a statement,” Bayless said Tuesday night.
“But, the SBI has made a report,” Covington said.
“Yes, the SBI has,” Bayless said, “but until our DA gives us permission, we can’t resolve these issues.”
The council neither denied nor confirmed the figures Covington cited, but continued reminding her the case was simply not up for discussion.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate to discuss a matter of potential criminal litigation before the case has been settled,” Councilman Jesse McQueen said. “We’re not going to discuss it in a public meeting.”
Recently hired City Attorney T.C. Morphis was unfamiliar with the status of the SBI’s findings Wednesday.
“I wasn’t here when this started,” he said. “I’m very new, and this case dates back years from what I understand. It was already in the hands of the state before I was hired by the city.”
Also Wednesday, Saunders fielded questions about his role in the investigation.
“I get credit for everything whether I’m in it or not,” Saunders said. “I do not have anything to do with this case. I felt it should be looked at by someone totally unconnected, so it is actually in the hands of special prosecutions out of the state attorney general’s office. A lot of times once I pass a case on, they handle it and never contact me again.”
Saunders said it is not unusual for special prosecutors to be assigned to cases involving the investigation of governmental departments. The special prosecutors help ensure unbiased decisions.
What the council is waiting for is not information from the DA’s office, Saunders explained, but from the attorney general’s bureau of special prosecutions.
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 15.