CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. — As the North Carolina State Bar questions defense attorneys about "an apparent ticket-fixing agreement" in Cabarrus County, 23 lawyers signed their names on a notice of concern submitted to the government agency responsible for regulating the legal profession.
An unsigned copy of the notice, obtained by WCNC Charlotte's Nate Morabito, details defense attorneys' ethical and legal concerns and desire "to maintain the integrity of our clients' representation and that of our profession."
While those attorneys, described as regular practicing and in good standing with the State Bar, were willing to attach their names to the letter, WCNC Charlotte learned many did not want their identities released publicly, afraid of "retribution against their clients."
A WCNC Charlotte investigation previously identified lenient and unusual plea deals given to some excessive speeding defendants. In those cases, law enforcement originally charged the defendants with driving up to 40 miles per hour over the limit and in most cases, reckless driving too, yet not only did those drivers get to keep their licenses, some left court with nothing more than a $10 fine.
"Specifically, the parties agreed to handle traffic matters – many involving high speeds and reckless driving – in secret, outside of court," the bar notice states. "The results of these arrangements were non-moving violations of Rear Seat Belt and Failure to Notify DMV of Address Change when there was no logical nexus to the target charge. On other dispositions, the parties fraudulently modified the speed limit in certain areas to camouflage the extent to which matters were being reduced."
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The defendants all had something else in common: who they hired to represent them. A review of court documents and campaign finance records identified one lawyer, Todd Williford, who secured more than 90% of the plea deals WCNC Charlotte identified. The most recently filed campaign finance reports show Williford is also the leading donor to date for Assistant District Attorney Beth Street, who is running for judge, and was the prosecutor of record in several of his cases. He previously said everyone gets these deals and they're "no big deal."
The signed notice, which cites WCNC Charlotte's reporting, is at least the second complaint filed so far. Cabarrus County's bar counselor received an anonymous complaint as well during the summer.
Three attorneys have also publicly raised questions about the unequal justice handed down in Cabarrus County. Laura Baker, Howard Long and Vernon Russell each confirmed the unusual nature of the lenient deals.
"A lot of us are getting calls daily from clients wondering, 'Why aren't we getting these deals?'" Baker told WCNC Charlotte earlier this month. "I personally hear it almost daily from clients who call in and say that they saw the news story."
Baker, who said she is among those who signed the notice, believes an independent investigation is necessary.
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"I believe a lot of the local attorneys believe that there should be an investigation," she said. "We need to have it investigated so that the air is cleared and we can start fresh and we can all make sure that that we're acting appropriately for our clients and we can restore our faith in the system."
WCNC Charlotte learned State Bar investigators interviewed several defense attorneys this week. The government agency previously told WCNC Charlotte it could not legally comment whether the State Bar "received a complaint or is conducting an investigation."
District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven retired in August, months before the end of her term, but not before dismissing what WCNC Charlotte uncovered as a small percentage of cases. She said her office gave non-traditional pleas "to a multitude of defense attorneys AND unrepresented citizens" due to pandemic-related court limitations. However, she never explained why prosecutors gave only certain attorneys the most favorable plea deals.
"From the DA's Office perspective, we do not differentiate one non-moving violation from another," Vaneekhoven told WCNC Charlotte in a statement. "Nor does the DA's Office consider the fine or fee associated with any traffic case."
Ashlie Shanley, who took over as the new district attorney in September, previously referred all comments to Vaneekhoven.
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