RED SPRINGS — Ronnie Patterson, the chief of police in Red Springs and the runner-up in the May Democratic primary for sheriff, was arrested today and charged with multiple counts of removing personnel files from the town’s office.
Also charged after a four-month investigation was David Ashburn, the town manager who was hired earlier this year.
Erich Hackney, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, said the investigation was launched after John McNeill, the former mayor of Red Springs, publicly called for it. McNeill was one of Patterson’s campaign managers during his bid for sheriff.
McNeill made the call after The Robesonian received documents that showed Patterson lied to investigators in 2008 when he was accused of sexual harassment in a civil lawsuit and published a story.
Patterson, the town’s police chief since 2010, is charged with 10 counts of unlawful removal of public records and 10 counts of conspiracy to commit removal of public records. Ashburn, the town manager since January, is charged with 10 counts of removal of public records, 10 counts of unlawful disposal of public records and 10 counts of conspiracy to commit removal of public records.
The two were indicted on those charges by a grand jury on Sept. 4. All the charges are misdemeanors.
Patterson and Ashburn were taken before a magistrate today and released on a written promise to appear in Superior Court on Monday.
According to Hackney, the investigation reached into Dunn, Southport, Bladenboro, Lilesville, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Lumberton, and culminated on May 4 when Hackney served a search warrant at Red Springs Town Hall for all files and records relating to Patterson and targeted two bankers boxes that included Patterson’s personnel information.
“The investigation revealed that these two bankers boxes were removed from the vault during Patterson’s election campaign by Ashburn in violation of the North Carolina Records Retention and Disposition Schedule,” Hackney said. “This schedule is governed by state law … which requires certain records to be retained for specific periods of time and that after the prescribed time period, may be disposed of in only one of four ways. Giving records of this nature to a current employee is not allowed by law.
“The investigation found that these documents were unlawfully removed from Town Hall between Jan. 1, 2018, and Feb. 28, 2018, by both Ashburn and Patterson. State law further prohibits town managers from having access to employee personnel records unless there is an open investigation.”
The Robesonian published on April 26 a story about Patterson’s perjury after receiving what appeared to be copies of Patterson’s personnel file as related to the sexual harassment lawsuit. The lawsuit included no finding that the harassment occurred, but a Department of Justice investigator said Patterson lied repeatedly during the investigation and was essentially unfit to be a law enforcement officer and presented a liability to the town.
The Robesonian was told that the documents were found years ago in a storage unit that Patterson once rented but abandoned.
Wilkins received about 42 percent of the vote and Patterson 35 percent in a five-person Democratic primary on May 8. There is no Republican candidate for sheriff, so Wilkins will take office in December.
Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649 or [email protected]