WRAL Investigates

Judge to decide whether Franklin court clerk can keep her job

Posted September 28, 2020 1:12 p.m. EDT
Updated September 29, 2020 9:56 a.m. EDT

— Franklin County Clerk of Superior Court Patricia Burnette Chastain has been publicly humiliated by a suspension and doesn't deserve to be removed from office, her attorney argued Monday.

Chastain was suspended in July, based on allegations of misconduct, some of which were the subject of a WRAL Investigates story in February.

She showed up unannounced last December at the home of a Louisburg couple involved in a dispute with one of their neighbors to say that she was mediating the dispute, even though the couple already had obtained a restraining order from a local judge against their neighbor.

"You're not saying what the judge said," Adam Diaz told Chastain, according to video from a body-worn camera of a deputy called to the scene.

"I'm telling you the law," Chastain replied, telling Diaz and his wife that they were abusing the county 911 system to report their neighbor was violating the restraining order and threatening to take legal action against them.

"In no way, shape or form is that her job," Jeffrey Thompson, an attorney for the Diazes, told WRAL. He then filed a formal complaint against her seeking her removal.

Chastain later told WRAL that she never meant to intimidate the couple and that she was simply trying to resolve the dispute.

Superior Court Judge John Dunlow cited that encounter and other instances of misconduct in his order suspending her, including giving gift certificates to jurors and inviting a political candidate to campaign to a jury pool. Chastain also is accused of demanding to see a murder suspect to the point that deputies banned her from the jail, and a state audit also criticized operations in the clerk's office.

"She has consistently shown a willful inability to work with other judicial officials and offices and has consistently and willfully overstepped her authority in many cases," said Boyd Sturges, the attorney for Thompson.

"This certainly feels like a criminal prosecution, beginning with Ms. Chastain's removal from the office and literally this building by law enforcement officers," said Chastain's attorney, Roger Smith.

Chastain and her lawyers were able to remove Dunlow from the case due to potential bias, and Superior Court Judge Tom Lock out of Johnston County was named to preside over this week's administrative hearing.

Smith argued that making mistakes doesn't rise to the level of willful misconduct, which is the standard for a public official to be removed. He told Lock that Franklin County voters should be allowed to decide in two years whether Chastain should remain in office.

The hearing will continue Tuesday morning and could last all week.

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