Rowan commissioner pleads no contest for making 10,000 personal copies on county machine

Published: Sep. 3, 2014 at 7:22 PM EDT
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Barber and friend James Kirks leaving the courthouse
Barber and friend James Kirks leaving the courthouse

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - A Rowan County Commissioner pleaded "no contest" as part of an Alford Plea in district court Wednesday morning.

An SBI investigation had resulted in a misdemeanor larceny charge for Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber.  Barber is charged with using a county owned copying machine to make personal copies.

In January, Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook told WBTV that a complaint over Barber's use of the copier had been moved to a special prosecutor's program called the NC Conference of District Attorneys Financial Crimes Initiative to deal with such allegations.

The investigation was later turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation.

The summons was served on Tuesday.

In January, 2013, Barber was confronted in closed session by commissioners over his use of the county copier.  At that time, Commissioner Jim Sides said that Barber apologized and made assurances that the act would not happen again.

In September, Sides told WBTV that he had reason to believe that Barber had been making more copies on the county's dime, so commissioners voted to begin a censure investigation.

A censure would have resulted in a quasi-judicial hearing conducted by the Chairman of the Commission.  It was later put aside in favor of an independent investigation.

In all, Sides said that he confronted Barber on three separate occasions about running "large scale print jobs" on the county copier, and that all three times Barber apologized and said it would stop.

Sides said when he discovered that hundreds of copies were made after the third confrontation, he decided to go forward with an investigation.

Barber said at the time that he believed the investigation was political payback for his vocal support of some initiatives backed by the City of Salisbury that were at odds with other commissioners.

In November, county staffers said that Barber had made more than 4000 copies on a county copying machine.  The report indicated that the copies were for Barber's business, My Farm Fresh Marketplace.

According to the report, copies were frequently made over the weekend, and often the toner would run out.

Board clerk Carolyn Barger was quoted in the report saying that jobs left in the copier after Barber had gone indicated that he was using the copier to promote his business.

"We came in, our copier in the work area was jammed and also out of toner," Barger wrote. "So when we repaired all the jams and replaced toner, the machine kicked in with the current copy jobs. It was a color flyer for Commissioner Barber's business or apparently for a huge event he was running the flyer for that was at Farm Fresh Produce, his business."

On Wednesday Barber, with lawyers Todd Paris and Pete Hoffman, pleaded no contest as part of Alford plea.  That means that Barber is not admitting guilt, but admitting that there is evidence against him that could lead to a conviction.

Barber was given a 45 day suspended sentence, ordered to pay restitution to Rowan County of $800, a fine of $500, ordered to be on unsupervised probation for one year, and ordered to perform 36 hours of community service within the next 90 days.

Barber also received quite a scolding from the judge after sentence was passed.

"It's not the worst offense in history...but it is violating public trust," said Judge Brent Cloninger.     "You are an elected official, people count on you.  You have a responsibility to the folks of Rowan County to conduct yourself in the most ethical of ways."

Barber, who fought a public battle with alcoholism several years ago that resulted in his termination from the Rowan Salisbury School System, as well as arrests for driving while impaired and stealing a bottle of wine from a convenience store, was asked by the judge if he was under the influence of alcohol or any other drugs.

Barber said "No, sir."

When asked when was the last time he consumed such products, Barber replied "Years."

Barber did not make any comment in court and left the courthouse with saying anything to reporters.

Minutes later a friend of Barber's, James Kirks, brought a printed statement that he said was from Barber.

In the statement Barber says taking the plea was "the best decision for my family and the citizens of Rowan County."

Barber denied his guilt, writing "I am still maintaining that I am innocent of all charges."

Barber said that the copies, 10,000 by the prosecutor's estimation, were for a webinar on health issues and policies paid for by the county, a fundraiser for a nonprofit that serves homeless veterans, and documents concerning outstanding public records requests.

Barber also says that when he was confronted about the use of the copier that he wrote a check to pay for any copies.  He says Commission Chairman Jim Sides would not accept the check.

On Wednesday Sides told WBTV that he did not wish to comment any further on the matter. He said that the prosecution was not politically motivated and he now "just wanted the issue to go away."

Barber will come off the board in November.  In his statement today he touted his success during his term saying "I have been a champion of no kill shelters, food advocacy, improving the health and nutrition of all Rowan County citizens, providing prescription and dental discounts to citizens in Rowan County who are without health insurance an on low income, and have advocated for nutritional meals in our public schools."