A North Carolina sheriff is facing a criminal investigation this week over the way he handled a public records request submitted to his office by Charlotte news outlet WBTV. Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan received the public records request, for all text messages from his county cell phone, in April but instead of producing the records, the sheriff opened a criminal investigation into the actions of city employees who tried to fill the request.
WBTV made the public records request Buchanan after receiving a tip, “regarding the circumstances surrounding Buchanan’s appointment.” The station was asking for “all written communication—including text messages and emails—sent and received by Sheriff Terry Buchanan and the county commissioners.” The text messages and emails from commissioners were produced by city employees but when record custodians tried to access the Sheriff’s accounts, Buchanan opened a criminal investigation into their actions.
The request was the subject of a nearly ten-minute rant by Buchanan at a commissioners meeting in mid-April, weeks after the request was submitted.
“We don’t have time for this,” Buchanan told the commissioners of WBTV’s public records request in April. “Everything we have is (sic) public document but this takes away from all of our jobs; takes away from my job.”
The North Carolina Public Records Act makes nearly all records created by government officials and employees—which can be paper, electronic or another form—open to the public for inspection.
“The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people,” the statute reads.
Under the law, public records must be provided to those who request them “as promptly as possible.”
In his April speech before the commissioners, Buchanan acknowledged that he was subject to the public records act as sheriff.
“I have a cell phone that’s issued to me by the county. It’s a public record. Anybody could have that information,” Buchanan said. “I couldn’t care less if you grabbed what’s on my phone and put it out there.”
Buchanan may have boasted that he was more than willing to turn over the records but has yet to do so.
“Ashe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rick Clayton confirmed an investigation in a phone call Monday afternoon but refused to provide the violation or possible violation of the law being investigated, as required by the Public Records Act.”
So as the sheriff conducts his own secret investigation into the actions of city employees performing their public duties, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation opened their own investigation into the actions of the sheriff.
Buchanan was appointed last year by the Ashe County Board of Commissioner’s five member panel. His appointment was a contentious subject between several commissioners who had another person in mind for the job. The emails and text messages sought by the news station would give the public insight into the politics that may have played a roll in Buchanan’s appointment. You can read more about that here.
In past interviews, Buchanan has said he’s focused his efforts on revamping the department’s training standards, mapping out common sense mutual aid agreements with surrounding law enforcement agencies like the West Jefferson Police Department and debuting new transparency initiatives like his monthly “Coffee With A Cop,” sit downs and a brand new online community crime map.
His office also made short work of the manhunt for shooting suspect Lee Walker Fierro earlier this year and has made multiple other high profile arrests.
But he’s also come under scrutiny for the way in which he’s handled his transition as the county’s top lawman, from both public officials and multiple former ACSO employees.
If you would like to reach out to Sheriff Buchanan and remind him that public records belong to the people he serves and his job is to hand them over when we ask, you can find his contact information below. Obviously, if he has nothing to hide…he has nothing to fear.
Scroll down to watch the Sheriff’s Public Records Rant at the Ashe County Board of Commissioner’s Meeting.