The mayor’s indicted. Now what?
Last week’s indictment of High Point Mayor Bernita Sims brought an end to one chapter in a long-running saga, but much of the story remains to be told.
Following investigations that began in March, special prosecutors with the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office sought and obtained from a grand jury a felony worthless-check indictment against Sims.
She is accused of writing a worthless $7,000 check to a family member as part of an estate settlement in November 2012.
Since The High Point Enterprise broke the news in May that Sims was under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, her supporters held out hope that the inquiry wouldn’t result in a criminal case against her.
“The one thing that I think everybody who supports her hoped would not happen did happen. So, needless to say, we’re disappointed and saddened by that,” said the Rev. Frank Thomas of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, who is president of the Ministers Conference of High Point & Vicinity.
“I don’t know that it was a surprise. I just think people were being optimistic, as much as they could.”
Sims, who last month survived a City Council call for her to step down, now must try to fend off a felony conviction, which would bar her from elected office.
In brief comments Friday, she reiterated her intention to remain in office despite the legal case against her. She declined to discuss the evidence in the case, but said she doesn’t foresee it being a distraction in her dealings with the City Council.
“I think, through all of this, we have worked together and done what we’re supposed to do. I intend to continue to do so,” she said. “There’s work to be done and I intend to do it.”
DISMISSAL, PLEA DEAL OR TRIAL?
Standing outside the Guilford County Jail in Greensboro on Tuesday afternoon after Sims had been released on unsecured bond, her attorney, David Freedman of Winston-Salem, said his goal was to “move to a resolution as expeditiously as possible.”
How might this play out, as Freedman and authorities either negotiate a plea agreement or a dismissal, or move toward trial?
Randy Carroll, a former Guilford County Assistant District Attorney who served as High Point’s top prosecutor from 1998 until 2007, said most worthless-check cases he saw were misdemeanors — amounts under $2,000.
“In all my years as a prosecutor, you know how many worthless-check cases I tried? Zero. The practice is, get the check paid and the charge dismissed. That was usually what was done with them,” said Carroll, who is now in private practice and is not involved in Sims’ case. “Felonies were a little bit different, but we never dealt with many felony worthless-check charges.”
Sims is executor of the estate of her sister, Virginia Sims of Maryland, who died in 2008.
She wrote the allegedly worthless check after a Maryland judge ordered her to pay another sister, Annie Ponce of High Point, a portion of her share of the estate.
The indictment accuses Sims of writing the bad check from a First Bank account in High Point that she knew had insufficient funds.
Sims paid Ponce the full $7,000 in May.
Carroll said the fact that Attorney General’s office prosecutors and the SBI have expended significant time and resources on the case so far indicates that they don’t plan to drop the charge.
“I would say the chances of it being dismissed, even if restitution has been made, are much less than in a normal case, because everything (authorities) do is going to be scrutinized,” Carroll said. “The fact that she was indicted after restitution was made would indicate to me that it’s not likely to be dismissed.”
That raises the question of whether prosecutors might accept a guilty plea to a lesser offense. It’s possible, according to legal observers, although authorities are bound to be sensitive to being perceived as going easy on the mayor because she’s a public figure.
“I would imagine they’re probably trying to give the appearance that she’s not getting any special treatment,” said John Bryson, a High Point criminal defense attorney who is not involved in Sims’ case.
FELONY OR MISDEMEANOR — BIG DIFFERENCE
In an interview last week, Ponce reiterated previous comments she’s made about what happened after Sims gave her the check last year.
She said she tried repeatedly before and after Sims took office in December 2012 to get her to make good on the check before depositing it. Ponce eventually reported the matter to High Point police on March 13, which initiated the SBI investigation.
“(Sims) could have went on and made things right. She chose not to. I told her not to go into office owing me that kind of money,” Ponce said.
A plea to a lesser offense, by definition, would have to be a misdemeanor, since the charge Sims faces is a Class I felony, the lowest classification of felony offense in North Carolina.
The case went directly to Superior Court, where felony criminal cases are handled. Carroll said the fact that the special prosecutor took the case straight to the grand jury and bypassed District Court, where many charges originate, is significant.
“It means they’re handling the case in sort of a special and expeditious way,” he said, adding that cases often lag in District Court.
Evidence that investigators may have gathered that hasn’t made it into the public domain could also influence how the case goes forward. SBI agents looked into possible misuse and misappropriation of funds from the estate, but the indictment does not allege anything related to this.
“The amount that it is and it being a felony charge — that’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s someone’s livelihood. That’s why the SBI and grand jury took as long as it did,” said Thomas. “Because if you are convicted of a felony — that’s not something I would wish on anybody.”
Sims, who is due in Superior Court Dec. 16, drew a strong turnout of supporters at the October council meeting who objected to the 6-3 vote calling on her to resign.
She said she thinks her support is similarly solid in the wake of the indictment.
“What I’ve heard has been, for the most part, positive. It has been positive and kind of uplifting words of encouragement,” she said.
Time will tell if the type of public outcry that led to the council vote emerges now that Sims faces a criminal charge. Her supporters have maintained that the SBI investigation, a city utility-bill delinquency that went unpaid by Sims for several months, as well as the fact that the city is garnishing part of her salary for back income taxes involve personal matters that have nothing to do with her fitness for office.
State Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican and former councilman who served alongside Sims, said he’s been surprised by the mayor’s troubles.
“She’s a very intelligent lady. She knows what she’s doing,” said Faircloth. “I think this is one of those personal things that sometimes we all get involved in that got out of hand. It does seem a little out of character.”
Sims and the current council have a year to go on their terms.
In November 2014, a city referendum will determine whether council and mayoral elections go back to odd-numbered years and primaries are added to city elections. If it passes, the 2017 election would narrow the field of candidates for each seat to two before the election. The current system, in which an unlimited number of candidates can run for each council seat, will remain for the 2014 election.
Sims won in 2012 with 33 percent of the vote in a five-person race. If her troubles serve to motivate a large slate of candidates to run next year, they will likely be more attuned to election strategy this time around, Faircloth said.
“I suspect there’s a better understanding of the numbers game that goes along with this type of election,” Faircloth said. “Probably, if there are serious candidates, they would be talking with each other and saying, ‘What’s the best way for us to approach this?’ Because if seven or eight folks run, obviously it doesn’t take much to win.”
Thomas said he doesn’t think Sims’ support has wavered.
“Our legal system does say innocent until proven guilty, so we won’t rush to judgment,” he said. “She is trusting that her lawyer, who came highly recommended, would serve her well and the justice system would also serve her well.”