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August 8, 1999
Carteret County News-Times

Beach councilmen pleads guilty to misdemeanor in election case
By Brad Rich, Staff Writer

BEAUFORT - Atlantic Beach District 6 Councilman Wally Courie pleaded guilty Monday to a misdemeanor charge of ``attempting to possess an absentee voting ballot.''

The plea, before Judge Napoleon Barefoot in Carteret County Superior Court, ended a voting fraud cause that began in January, when the councilman was indicted by a Carteret County grand jury.

The case was connected to a November 1997 town council runoff election in which the councilman was charged with allegedly ``possessing for return to the Carteret County Board of Elections'' five absentee ballots, a felony.

Councilman Courie, an attorney who last year resigned his council post but later ``unresigned'' to fight the charge, agreed Monday to the plea bargain and will pay a $100 fine and $111 in court costs. He also agreed not to seek re-election in October, when his two-year term expires, and received a sentence of 45 days in jail, but the term was suspended provided he abides by the judgment.

The law in question in the case also required that the State Bar Association be notified of the arrest because Mr. Courie is a practicing attorney and was charged with a felony. However, the councilman said Tuesday he does not expect any bar association action in response to his plea of guilty to the misdemeanor charge.

The charge stemmed from the hotly contested District 2 Council race between Rilla Moran Woods and Billy Sparkman in 1997.

In the general election in October of that year, Mrs. Woods received 34 votes, Mr. Sparkman received 28 and Adrian Pharo received six. Since 34 did not constitute a majority of the 68 ballots cast, Mr. Sparkman was eligible to call for a runoff, which he did.

In the runoff, Mrs. Woods was declared the winner, 40-39. Two days later, Mr. Sparkman said he found three absentee ballots from people who also were registered in other towns in the state.

County elections officials ruled that, in order to contest the election, Mr. Sparkman had to have challenged the ballots the day of the election, before the polls closed.

Town residents also challenged the election at the state level, but state officials allowed Councilman Woods' victory to stand.

Bill Donnelly, who still presided as mayor but who had lost in the October election, called for an investigation. District Attorney David McFadyen did so, and turned the case over to the SBI. State police then turned the case over to the attorney general, and prosecutor Mary D. Winstead was assigned to handle to case.

The indictment was not connected to the absentee ballots Mr. Sparkman challenged, and listed the ballots in question as belonging to Cecilia, Rhys, Tiffany, Tristan and Ronnie Young, and says Mr. Courie was neither a ``near relative'' nor ``legal guardian'' of the five. Mr. Courie is friends of the Youngs.

The councilman said at the time that he was unsure whether he had mailed the ballots, but added that he was unaware that act was illegal.

Tuesday, he again maintained that he had not known he acted illegally.

``I was just trying to help people vote, to be of assistance, to encourage public participation,'' he said. ``But ignorance of the law is no excuse.''

According to the councilman, federal law allows anyone to carry a voter registration to the elections office, provided the registration form bears the voter's signature, he said. However, the law states that only the voter or a ``near family member'' can take an absentee ballot to the elections office.

``The ballot can be witnessed by an outside party, but that outside party can't take that ballot to the office,'' Councilman Courie said. ``I was not in the family (of voter Cecelia Young) but I was about as close as you can get; I call her `Mom.'''

At any rate, Councilman Courie said, ``I think this whole thing is over now. That's not up to me it's up to (District Attorney) David McFadyen and the (state) Attorney General's office but I hope it is over.

``I hope we can move forward from here and get this whole thing behind us,'' he added. ``I sincerely regret any harm my inappropriate action caused.''

The town this year is changing from a system in which eight councilmen have been elected from districts and a mayor has been elected at-large, to a system in which five councilmen and the mayor will all be elected at-large.

Councilman Courie declined to rule out a future bid for the town council, and said he was glad he had ``unresigned'' and will be able to fill out his present term.

``After I resigned, I quickly realized that was the wrong thing to do because they (the rest of the council) were not going to fill my seat and my district wouldn't have been represented,'' he said.

Now, however, ``I need a break from town politics,'' he added. ``Everybody thinks he is indispensable, but nobody is. There are a lot of good people running who can do a good job for the town.''

And Councilman Courie said he hopes he and everyone else involved in the 1997 election has learned a lesson about the election process.

``This (charge) was a result of the second (runoff) election,'' he said. ``The registration book had been closed. Mr. Sparkman didn't challenge any ballots in the first election and he didn't challenge any in the runoff until after it was over.

``It was a very tiny district. The absentee ballot list was posed on the (election office) wall and he (Mr. Sparkman) had all day to look at that list. If people have questions about votes, they need to take care of those before the election is over.''

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