LUMBERTON, NC (WBTV) – Laura Sampson had run for the Lumberton City Council in four previous election before her name appeared on the ballot in 2015.
That year, she was squaring off in yet another re-match against Leon Maynor, a longtime incumbent on the council.
Eventually, after all of the votes were counted in the 2015 race, Sampson would come up short of unseating Maynor by one vote.
Not long after the final vote was tallied, Sampson filed a complaint with the Robeson County Board of Elections. Specifically, Sampson alleged that Maynor had paid at least three people to vote for him.
That request was forwarded to Chuck Stuber, a retired FBI agent who spent most of the early 2000’s making federal criminal cases against powerful leaders across North Carolina. By November 2015, Stuber was the chief investigator for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Records produced by the NCSBE to WBTV in response to a public records request show Stuber, another investigator and the agency’s general counsel, Josh Lawson, quickly turned their attention to probing the vote-buying allegations.
The board’s records show investigators interviewed more than a dozen people in the span of roughly two weeks. The final evidence packet handed over to local prosecutors in Robeson County included notes from those interviews along with a copy of a check written by Mayor allegedly in exchange for people’s votes, a video of a man describing how he came to make the deal with Mayor to vote for him in exchange for money, and other banking records.
But the elected district attorney in Robeson County, who, at the time, was Johnson Britt, ultimately ruled there wasn’t enough evidence of wrongdoing to even have the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation continue to look into the matter.
‘I’ll give you seven dollars if you come vote for me’
The string of events that led to the NCSBE investigating allegations of vote-buying against Leon Maynor started when Sampson learned of a man who said he’d been paid in exchange for a promise to vote for Maynor.
A video of an interview between the man, identified and Clentel Thompson, and Sampson is included in the packet of evidence produced by the elections board.
“I’ll give you seven dollars if you come vote for me,” Thompson said he was told by Maynor.
Thompson said Maynor wrote a check to pay him and two others for their votes.
“How much was the check for?” Sampson asked Thompson in the grainy cell phone video. “Twenty-one dollars,” Thompson responded.
“And twenty-one dollars? How’d he come up with twenty-one dollars?” Sampson asked. “He gave us seven dollars apiece to vote for him,” Thompson responded.
The packet of evidence sent to the prosecutor also includes a copy of the check written by Maynor for $21. The words “voting citizens” is included in the memo line of the check.
“I was not surprised to hear that it was happening,” Sampson said in a recent interview with WBTV. “I mean, we had always heard that it went on but this was, I thought, solid proof. In addition to the check, these three people wrote statements that this actually happened.”
Each of the three people alleged to have received $7 from Maynor in exchange for their vote wrote statements that were notarized and submitted by Sampson as part of the original complaint.
Investigators with the NCSBE later interviewed all three people, too.
Eula Mae Brown was the one who received the check from Maynor in exchange for the three votes.
Notes from the investigator’s interview with her shows a shifting story.
“Eula Mae stated that she had no idea what Maynor and Clentel talked about and why Clentel received $21.00. During the interview Cassandra Brown was laughing and telling her momma to tell the truth,” the investigator’s notes say.
Later in the interview, according to the notes, her statement came more in-line with the notarized statement she’d previously submitted.
“The assigned investigator showed Eula Mae Brown the statement dated November 18, 2015. Euala Ma (sic) stated that she did write a statement telling NCSBE investigators that the only thing she know (sic) was that she had to vote for Maynor. Eula Mae stated that Clentel told her that he arranged with Maynor to vote and that the check was placed in her name because Clentel had no I.D. and that Maynor came by to pick them up to vote (See Item D).”
An interview with the third person alleged to have been paid in exchange for their vote, Cassandra Brown, confirmed her previous written statement, according to the investigator’s notes.
“Cassandra further stated that Mr. Maynor made out the check to my momma for $21.00 dollars. Cassandra stated that my momma and I went to the bank in the shopping center across the street to cash the $21.00 dollar check and split the money and all got $7.00 apiece,” the investigator’s notes from the interview say.
“Cassandra stated that she bought cigarettes and soda with the money,” the notes from the interview say.
Sampson, the candidate who filed the complaint, said she believed the case against Maynor for vote-buying was air-tight.
“Take a look at the evidence for yourself: there’s a check, there’s a copy of the check, there’s written statements from the folks who received the check, there’s the memo line on the check that says “voting citizens.” I mean, I don’t know how much clearer it could be,” she said.
District Attorney Rules Against Investigation
As air-tight as Laura Sampson thought the case of vote-buying was, then-Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt thought the opposite.
“After reviewing the file including the accompanying DVD+R, it is my opinion that the information submitted to support the allegations are insufficient to establish probable cause that a crime was committed and are grossly inadequate to support further criminal investigation by your agency,” Britt wrote in a letter to the SBI.
Johnson further defended his decision to not even continue investigating the case in an interview with WBTV.
“In my analysis of it, in reading the individuals’ statements, you had one witness say ‘I never talked to Mr. Maynor, I don’t know where this money came from, this person told me this is what it was for.’ When she was initially interviewed, she made one statement. When interviewed again, contradicted herself,” Britt said.
“It really came down to a question of credibility of the individuals making the allegations,” the former DA said.
But Britt said the other evidence—including the multiple sworn statements and the documents produced by the NCSBE—wasn’t enough to justify pursuing a case.
“There was suspicion but it did it rise to the level or probable cause? I didn’t think so,” Britt said.
Britt also said he had known Maynor, who has died in the years since the complaint was filed, for a long time before the complaint was sent to him by the NCSBE.
“I always knew Mr. Maynor to be a very equitable person, a person of great character, a person who was very concerned about the community that he represented and I always believed that he was honest and trustworthy,” Britt said.
In evaluating cases of potential election fraud, the former prosecutor said, evaluating the evidence and determining whether there’s enough to make a case can be complicated.
“The biggest thing you have to do is you got to be able to prove the intent of the accused,” Britt said.
“It is what it is, is the best way to put it,” Britt said of the case. “In terms of was he buying votes? I didn’t see that.”
‘In Robeson County, it not an election, it’s a selection’
Longtime Robeson County political operative Wixie Stephens ran Sampson’s city council campaign in 2015.
In the years before that campaign and in the time since, Stephens said, she’s worked to help voters make sure their ballot counted.
“I never discourage people from voting,” she said. “But I will tell them ‘you need to check and see if it counted.”
Both Stephens and Sampson were surprised to hear that Britt declined to even investigate the 2015 case referral from the NCSBE. Both women said they always wondered what had happened with their complaint but were never given any information.
“It was clear-cut evidence. What more would you need?” Stephens said.
Stephens said she was glad the handling of the case was being publicized now, years after the fact, in hopes that it would deter future conduct in the county.
“I’ve always said, in Robeson County, it’s not an election, it’s a selection,” Stephens said.
Sampson, who lost the 2015 race by one vote, said she feels the evidence amassed by the NCSBE is proof of the back-room nature of politics in her county.
“I feel that my opponent was never worried because he knew that he would be protected,” she said. “And I think this is proof that he was protected.”