Swain County Recycling Center employees reporting to work early on April 1 found that the elections office was broken into at some point during the night or early morning.
The sheriff’s department was called to investigate as Elections Director Joan Weeks walked through the office to see if anything was noticeably missing.
“Someone broke into our facilities and ransacked through all of our stuff that wasn’t locked down,” said John Herrin, elections board chairman. “They might have accessed our file cabinet — probably more looking for money than information.”
But the only tangible cash on site was a small tin cash box that the recycling center stores in the office overnight. The board of elections occupies front office space to a warehouse building where the recycling center is located on Old U.S. 19 in Bryson City. For security measures, the recycling center employees have the box locked up in the secure office space instead of the warehouse.
County Manager Kevin King said the recycling center had locked up its petty cash box in the elections office for many years without any problems. The box rarely has more than $200 in it. Even though it wasn’t taken during the break in, King said the county would find a different place to store it in hopes of preventing this from happening again.
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation also was on scene after the break in to assist with the sheriff’s investigation. Teresa West, spokesperson for the SBI, said the SBI was asked to assist with the investigation but the sheriff’s office was taking the lead on the matter.
According to a preliminary sheriff’s report, the perpetrator busted through a piece of sheetrock to get into the building. No other information has been made public since the incident is still under investigation.
Herrin said the elections office takes seriously its responsibility to keep voter information confidential, but if someone were breaking in with the intent of stealing identification information, “they would have hit a gold mine.”
“A breach of our office is a big deal,” he said. “But nothing was missing as far as we could tell.”
The SBI ran audits to ensure there were no breaches in security and Weeks completed an inventory at the office. The elections office did not have an alarm system in place at the time, but the county had one installed at the office less than 24 hours after the incident was reported.
King said the interior of the office had video camera surveillance but footage didn’t reveal anything to help with the case.
Herrin said the camera was used to show interactions between employees and the public, which could protect them against liabilities.
“It shows the inner workings of the office — we don’t video the one-stop shop,” he said. “It was never intended for anything but monitoring our own staff.”
In addition to more security measures, Herrin said a new procedure was in place to make sure staff members file everything away in locked cabinets before locking up the office for the day.
“It’s been a good wake up call, but I wish it wouldn’t have happened liked that,” Herrin said.
It is somewhat ironic timing with the recent conflict between the elections board and the county. Just a few weeks ago, Herrin sat in front of commissioners and told them the county owed Weeks more than $78,000 in retirement benefits from her early years on the job.
The county contends that Weeks is not owed that retirement money because she was a part-time employee at the time and did not qualify for the retirement program. With the threat of litigation, commissioners haven’t said much about the issue other than their attorney would look in it.
Herrin has since forwarded his documentation to the North Carolina State Board of Elections to see if the local board’s claim is valid. The state board could ask that the North Carolina Attorney General pursue a lawsuit or mediation with the county if it finds Weeks is owed the benefits.
Despite the timing, Herrin isn’t jumping to conclusions.
“I think it’s probably just a common burglary,” he said.