Attorney files protest against candidate
By Jessie Burchette
A Salisbury attorney is challenging whether Laura Lyerly can remain on the Democratic ballot for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
James P. “Pete” Hoffman Jr. filed an official protest to Lyerly’s candidacy Monday with the Rowan County Board of Elections, contending that her guilty plea to embezzlement in 1998 disqualifies her from holding elected office under the state Constitution.
The Rowan Board of Elections will hold a special meeting at 11 a.m. Friday to conduct a preliminary hearing on the matter.
Lyerly said Tuesday that while she was not expecting the challenge, “this needs to be decided one way or the other, forever dead and buried so I won’t have to relive it every day.”
The 29-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill graduate questioned Hoffman’s motive in filing the challenge. She said Hoffman is targeting her personally, pointing out that at one point she considered hiring him, but did not.
She also dismissed the challenge, saying “People do all kinds of things to save their own a–.”
Lyerly of 8655 U.S. 601, won one of two spots on the Democratic ballot. Although relatively unknown in the county, Lyerly polled 6,351 votes, fewer than l,000 votes behind Democratic front-runner Raymond Coltrain, who is well known for his work as the superintendent of the Piedmont Research Station.
Hoffman said that as an attorney, he can’t respond to anything involving clients or potential clients.
“This has nothing do do with anything that went on before,” he said.
Hoffman said he saw the articles in the Post several weeks ago about Lyerly’s legal issue and the questions about whether she can legally be a candidate or serve if elected.
He decided to investigate and concluded that she is disqualified to run for office. Hoffman argued the crime of embezzlement to which Lyerly pleaded guilty is a “betrayal of trust,” which shouldn’t be a qualification to run for public office.
Shortly after the May 6 primary, Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly asked the N.C. Attorney General for an opinion on Lyerly’s situation. In 1998, she entered a plea of guilty to embezzlement from K-mart, where she had a summer job. She received a prayer for judgment continued ó a deferred sentence.
Election officials have not received the opinion.
On Feb. 29, when Lyerly filed for the Board of Commissioners race, she circled “No” in answer to a question about whether she had ever been convicted of a felony.
Lyerly said her attorney advised her that a prayer for judgment is not a conviction.
Hoffman laid out his argument that she is disqualified in a letter to the Rowan County Board of Elections.
Among several points he cites:
– “The N.C. Constitution disqualifies any candidate for elected office who has been adjudged guilty of any felony against this state and has not been restored to the rights of citizenship.
– “This section of the constitution was amended in 1971 to substitute the phrase ‘adjudged guilty’ for the term ‘convicted.’
– “An assertion is adjudged when it is decided or ruled by a judge with judicial or quasi-judicial powers;
– “Someone is guilty when they intentionally commit wrong acts, and to be guilty does not require a conviction.
– “The N.C. Supreme Court has held that the amendment in 1971 was intended to expand the disqualification beyond criminal trials to judgments of guilt that provide adequate due process;
– “Laura Lyerly was charged with embezzlement, a felony in North Carolina, on Aug. 8, 1998.
– “The case was disposed of on Oct. 20, 1998. Ms. Lyerly entered a plea of guilty, which was accepted and entered by the judge. (She did not plead nolo contendre, which might not have disqualified her from holding office.) She was given a prayer for judgment continued and a notation was made in the case file that ‘if future problems, case is to be reopened and a suspended sentence will be imposed.’
“The notation by the judge concerning the possibility of a later suspended sentence makes it crystal clear that Laura Lyerly entered a plea of guilty, was adjudged guilty of a felony, and is disqualified from any elected office in the State of North Carolina,” wrote Hoffman wrote.
Hoffman’s first proposed remedy is to remove Lyerly from the printed ballots or, if his protest is not handled prior to the election, that she be prevented from taking office if she is elected.
The Board of Elections hearing Friday will determine whether there is sufficient merit for the protest to be considered at a later session.
Lyerly said expects to attend and has contacted an attorney to represent her.
The hearing will be held in the Elections Office in the Cohen Administration Building at 130 W. Innes St. and is open to the public.