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Swain sheriff’s eligibility for office questioned

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran walks into the Board of Elections Office with his attorney David Sawyer. Jessi Stone photo Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran walks into the Board of Elections Office with his attorney David Sawyer. Jessi Stone photo

Cars lined the sides of U.S. 19 in Bryson City Monday night as people tried to find their way inside the small Swain County Board of Elections office to attend a public hearing regarding Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s eligibility for office. 

Just after Cochran signed up again to run for another term in office, Swain County resident Jerry Lowery filed a candidate challenge alleging that Cochran may not be qualified to serve in the position. Though he doesn’t have any concrete evidence, Lowery claims some 200 people in the community have told him that Cochran was dishonorably discharged from the military. His candidate challenge asserts that a dishonorable discharge from the military is equivalent to a felony charge, which would make him ineligible to run for sheriff. 

“It is the belief of the challenger, Sheriff Curtis A. Cochran failed to disclose his Dishonorable Discharge and is in fact concealing his military for DD-214 to keep this information from being disclosed and himself from being disqualified as Sheriff and removed from office,” the challenge form stated. 

Such a challenge prompts a quasi-judicial hearing process by the county board of elections. According to Patrick Gannon, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections, the law states that the candidate being challenged has the burden of proof and must show by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she is qualified for the office sought. 

The Swain County Board of Elections called a hearing for Monday, March 5 — both Lowery and Cochran were present. Lowery didn’t seem to bring along much support but Cochran had his attorney David Sawyer present and packed the room with his deputies and community supporters. Cochran said he had no comment for the media and let his lawyer do a majority of the talking. 

The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd quietly waited as the elections board began the public hearing. In his challenge, Lowery asked that a district or state elections board hear the challenge since the three-member Swain County board currently has one vacancy. That leaves the Chairman John Herrin and Secretary Bill Dills — both Republicans — to hear the case. Cochran is also a Republican.

“There’s no Democrat on this board — y’all are all Republicans,” Lowery told the board. “I don’t think I’d get a fair and partial deal.”

Herrin assured Lowery that their politician opinions would not sway their decision, which has to be made based on North Carolina law. 

“North Carolina has specific laws governing elections and all situations related to it — we have no choice but to abide by it,” he said. 

Lowery agreed to proceed with allowing the local board to hear the case. 

Cochran’s attorney David Sawyer said his client did not have possession of the military discharge certificate in question, but that he had requested the document from the federal government and asked that it be expedited. 

Herrin then asked if Sawyer would turn over the document for public review without a subpoena or if one would need to be issued. 

Sawyer said he would advise once he received the document. However, he doesn’t think the content of the document has any bearing on Cochran’s eligibility to serve as sheriff. 

“I do reserve the right to argue the relevance of it under the statute,” Sawyer said, adding that he also reserved the right to depose Lowery in the future to “further investigate the allegations.”

While Sawyer was prepared to present his evidence in the case Monday night, he said he understood the statute that allows time for discovery.

Herrin said evidence would have to wait until a hearing set for 5 p.m. March 12 at the Swain County Administration Building, but that he would allow Sawyer and Lowery to have a sidebar conversation away from the public hearing in an effort to resolve the issue if they wished. 

“I’d rather for it to be here before the board and the community,” Lowery said. 

The meeting was recessed until 5 p.m. March 12 when the hearing will be continued. 


Fireworks after the meeting

Surrounded by law enforcement officers and community members, Lowery was arrested by Swain County Sheriff’s deputies when he exited the Board of Elections office. 

Apparently, Lowery had an outstanding warrant out of Jackson County from 2008 for obtaining property under false pretense.

“Curtis is running scared because he knows he can’t produce nothing. I didn’t understand the charges, but they dug up an old warrant — didn’t even give me a copy of it,” Lowery said Tuesday morning. “Curtis had his deputies serve the warrant and arrested me.”

Swain deputies transported Lowery to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office right after the meeting, but Lowery said he paid his $5,000 bond in cash and went home. He found it suspicious that he’s lived in the same address in Bryson City for 25 years and Jackson deputies never served the warrant during the last 10 years. 

“Curtis wants to get the attention off of himself and make me look bad — he’s just trying to weasel his way out of this,” Lowery said. 

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As an independent voter, Lowery said he voted for Cochran the first time he ran for sheriff in 2006. However, after hearing people in the community talking about his alleged dishonorable discharge, Lowery said he decided to go straight to the source to ask when it came time for him to run for another term. 

“I went to his office and asked him face to face, man to man,” he said. “I told him to show the discharge papers and get it out of the way and he turned red looking at me and he couldn’t answer. The third time I asked him he sat there like a puffed up frog and said, ‘I’m already the sheriff and I will be the sheriff again.’”

Lowery said he didn’t have any personal grudges against Cochran that led him to file the challenge.

“I’m definitely not backing off of this now after that trick he pulled against me last night in front of everybody,” he said.

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