CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. — While Cabarrus County prosecutors handed out unusual, lenient deals to some accused excessive speeders, public records suggest their boss, now-retired District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven, was rarely at the courthouse to physically oversee her staff.
Courthouse access data show in the 14 months leading up to Vaneekhoven's August retirement, the elected public servant swiped her badge to get into the office just 46 times; less than once a week on average.
"The optics are terrible across the board," defense attorney Aaron Lee said. "This is a shadow on Cabarrus County and its judicial system, which I'm a member of, and it's insulting and embarrassing."
As WCNC Charlotte exposed in August, prosecutors gave big breaks to defendants represented by certain attorneys during the pandemic, which prevented accused reckless drivers from losing their licenses, paying big fines and having convictions on their driving records. Court records identified one lawyer who donated to an assistant prosecutor's judicial campaign and received most of the deals.
Lee, who's handled "thousands" of traffic court cases, said he never saw the former district attorney in the building over the last four years.
"I've never seen her personally in the courthouse ever," Lee told WCNC Charlotte. "Either way, it doesn't look good for her that this happened either under her nose or on her watch. If the elected DA is not there and this is what we see at the tip of the iceberg on these types of cases, it opens up Pandora's box to what else is going on. If the boss is away, who knows what's going to happen."
Several other attorneys told WCNC Charlotte they rarely saw Vaneekhoven at the courthouse during her last year in office.
WCNC Charlotte's recent review of additional court records identified multiple cases where charged speeders were stopped again after securing favorable deals. In one case, a North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper reportedly clocked a teen driving almost 30 mph over the speed limit (92 in a 65) on Interstate 85 in June. The teen allegedly nearly collided with another driver. Prosecutors dismissed all of the driver's charges just a week later, according to court records. In return, the teenager agreed to plead guilty to a non-moving violation, kept her license and paid a reduced fine.
Not even four months later, court records show the same teenager was clocked going even faster on I-85. This time, 93 mph. She pleaded guilty to reckless driving in November, records show, but received a prayer for judgment, which makes any consequences less severe.
ACLU of North Carolina Director of Policy and Advocacy Daniel Bowes said Cabarrus County's reputation precedes itself. He said this isn't the first time people have raised questions about prosecutors' use of their wide-ranging discretion.
"My level of concern for the administration of justice in Cabarrus County is high," Bowes said. "There really is this history that I think is particularly insidious."
Bowes said the county has a reputation for disproportionately burdening Black traffic court defendants with fines and fees, which, when unpaid, result in suspended licenses.
"They were on my radar when they chose to use their discretion not to help a huge amount of people who clearly deserved relief," he said. "People didn't feel like they were being treated fairly, especially with the high level of court debt in Cabarrus County."
Bowes said since state law gives prosecutors so much discretion, there's little oversight.
"It really brings into question who is holding district attorneys accountable," Bowes said. "It really is hard to say right now in North Carolina."
Courthouse access records suggest Vaneekhoven was not only routinely out of the office in 2021, but was also absent most of 2022. In fact, she only started regularly swiping her badge again in the weeks leading up to WCNC Charlotte's initial investigation and her retirement in August, the data shows.
Vaneekhoven retired just days after WCNC Charlotte requested her building access records. Her salary increased from $140,834 to $147,142 in July 2022, records show. She has declined WCNC Charlotte's repeated interview requests.
In a statement, the now-retired DA conceded she worked remotely due to COVID-19 for most of 2022, first after she fell ill and then as she served as the primary caretaker for her ex-husband, who was hospitalized with the virus for several months.
"This was an extremely difficult and trying time for me and my family," Vaneekhoven said in a statement. "Shortly after his discharge from the hospital I reached out to the Governor's Office to initiate my retirement which occurred at the end of August. During the times I was not physically in the office, I continued to work. I worked remotely while in the hospital, while caring for him in his home, and also from my home while I cared for our son. My Resident Superior Court Judge and my Office was fully aware of my family situation. I was able to attend work related meetings through zoom, conference calls and other teleconference means. Moreover, I was able to take case files home with me to work on and carry out my administrative and managerial tasks with phone calls, emails, text messages, and meetings outside of the courthouse."
Editor's Note: WCNC Charlotte has redacted personal medical information from Roxann Vaneekhoven's statement regarding her absence from the Cabarrus County Courthouse in 2021 and 2022. Vaneekhoven, who retired in August 2022, says her absence was related to COVID-19, including her own diagnosis, as well as the hospitalization of her ex-husband.
Despite WCNC Charlotte's further questions after receiving additional badge access data, Vaneekhoven did not explain her work activity in 2021. She previously noted the badge data does not accurately represent her attendance.
"... I know you have been made aware by the county, that any time over the last year that I entered the building through the front door, there will not be a record of my entry into the building because no key card access is required," she said. "Moreover, anytime someone holds one of the side doors open for me as I enter, or whenever I am walking in with another courthouse staff member who swipes their badge to open the door, there will be no record of my entry into the building despite the fact that I am there, (and these things happen very often)."
A Cabarrus County spokesperson said the county does not have a policy that requires each individual badge holder to swipe before entering the courthouse. Deputy County Attorney David Goldberg noted the data's limitations as well.
"Building access data only tell us when a person's badge was used, not necessarily when someone enters the building or works (especially given the availability of teleworking)," he said in the days before releasing the first round of data requested by WCNC Charlotte.
Vaneekhoven previously downplayed WCNC Charlotte's initial discovery. In the weeks that followed, 23 lawyers signed a notice of concern with the North Carolina State Bar calling for an investigation.
Lee did not sign the notice of concern but said he shares his colleagues' concerns. Lee said he's never received "a single deal" like the ones only a handful of other lawyers have secured.
"This is wrong," Lee said. "That's why I speak out against it. Attorneys should be held to a higher standard. It's infuriating and I think should be infuriating to every citizen that got a ticket there, because they are getting a rotten deal."
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