JEFFERSON, NC (WBTV) - Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan is under criminal investigation, multiple sources tell WBTV.
Buchanan, who took office in January after being appointed by the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, is being investigated for potential criminal violations related to his handling of a public records request from WBTV.
The investigation is being led by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, WBTV has learned.
WBTV submitted a records request in early April to Buchanan and the county's five commissioners after receiving an anonymous tip regarding the circumstances surrounding Buchanan's appointment.
Since then, Buchanan has launched an investigation into a county clerk's attempts to retrieve documents responsive to the station's request and has hired an attorney with county money but without commissioners' approval.
Buchanan denied being under investigation in an email to WBTV late last week.
"I did speak to a single SBI agent on Wednesday regarding Ann Clark, the Clerk to the Board of Commissioners of Ashe County. I do not feel it would be appropriate for me to elaborate any further in order to protect the integrity of the SBI's work," Buchanan said. "Unfortunately, there are some in Ashe County attempting to advance their political agenda's for the Sheriff's Office through baseless personal attacks."
Multiple sources tell WBTV SBI agents were spotted at both the Ashe County Sheriff's Office and the county courthouse on Thursday.
The same day SBI agents were at the Sheriff's Office, a lawyer for Buchanan emailed an attorney for WBTV to say the Sheriff may not have produced all records responsive to the station's request.
In an email following up on the Sheriff's response to WBTV, his attorney said he believed agents had obtained the Sheriff's text messages from his cell phone provider via a subpoena.
In addition to Buchanan, WBTV requested records from each of the county's five commissioners. Portions of that request remain outstanding.
Separately, WBTV has requested emails and text messages sent and received by Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick. The station has yet to receive any documents in response to that request.
Criminal investigations into public officials who fail to comply with the North Carolina Public Records Act are rare, according to Jonathan Jones, an attorney a public records expert who works at the executive director of the North Carolina Sunshine Center.
"It's incredibly rare to see that investigation and I've never seen (a violation) actually charged," Jones said.
The criminal investigation in Ashe County could send a message to other public officials that there are consequences for not producing records as required by law.
"Hopefully it reminds public officials that they need to take their responsibilities seriously under the Public Records Act," Jones said.