Jerry Lowery, a longtime Swain County resident and unaffiliated voter, challenged the Republican sheriff’s eligibility to serve in the office Feb. 28 after Cochran had signed up to run for his fourth term. Lowery claims Cochran was dishonorably discharged from the military, an action he says carries some of the same repercussions as being convicted of a felony, and therefore is ineligible to serve as sheriff.
Though Lowery has no evidence other than what he’s heard from others in the community, the law places the burden of proof on the person charged. That means Cochran must provide evidence to prove his innocence and eligibility. In this case, Cochran has been asked to provide his DD-214 form — a military document showing his dates of service and reason for discharge.
During a preliminary hearing before the local board of elections, Cochran’s lawyer David Sawyer said he didn’t have the form in his possession but had requested it be expedited to him from the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri. While Sawyer said he would hand the document over to the Board of Elections when he received it, he said he reserved the right to argue its relevance as it relates to the challenge.
Under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, The Smoky Mountain News also requested a copy of Cochran’s military record. Media and members of the public don’t have access to his DD-214 form but they can access certain basic information in someone’s military file, including the branch they served in, dates of entry and separation, place of entry and separation, assignments, any awards they received, rank and duty status.
According to information obtained from the National Personnel Records Center, Cochran served in the U.S. Marine Corps — he was in reserve service from June 12, 1975, until June 26, 1975, and he was listed as active duty from June 27, 1975, until Aug. 30, 1975. His duty status is simply listed as “discharged” — not honorably or dishonorably. Cochran’s only listed assignment was Parris Island, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C., and the same places were listed for his place of entry and separation.
The information does lay to rest the question of Cochran’s service; he was not dishonorably discharged as Lowery claimed, but Lowery said he’s still suspicious about the details of the sheriff’s two months of service. He said it’s “common knowledge” around town that Cochran went AWOL (absent without official leave) from the military.
Cochran had refused to comment on the candidate challenge or whether the accusations against him had any validity until he learned SMN had obtained the details of his service from the National Archives.
On June 12, 1975, Cochran said he volunteered for the Marine Corps and went through the processing center in Charlotte for enlistment. He said the reserve status listed on the FOIA form was for a two-week period prior to reporting back to Charlotte. He said he was sent to Parris Island for basic training and reported there on June 27, 1975.
“My oldest son had a medical emergency and the chaplain of the base called me into his office and said we are sending you home for the surgery. This was on August 30, 1975,” Cochran recalled. “Some time after this date — I don’t remember the exact date — I received a letter from the military stating that if I would sign a form releasing them from any VA or medical benefits, they would send me a discharge. I never thought anymore about the need to have a discharge paper, since by the military rules should be an ELS (entry level separation) because I was there for less than 180 days.”
Cochran said during that time he was doing quite a bit of traveling for different construction jobs and doesn’t remember ever receiving the discharge form from the military. He’s not sure if it was sent or if it just never found him while he was on the road.
“I am in no way stating that a discharge was not sent, but I don’t remember receiving one,” he said.
Brandon Wilson, a combat Marine who has held many positions within the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and served as the Director of Veteran Services in Haywood County, said a dishonorable discharge does not automatically mean an enlisted member is guilty of a felony. As for Cochran’s story, he said it’s not unlikely — separations happen often before someone even reports for duty. However, until the complete information included in the DD-214 form is available, Cochran’s explanation and Lowery’s accusations are just speculation.
As of March 23, Cochran still hadn’t received his DD-214 form.
Response to challenge
In the response filed with the Swain County Board of Elections, Cochran’s lawyer David Sawyer stated that Lowery’s challenge should be dismissed because the challenge is based on hearsay with no oral or written evidence to support it.
“Respondent denies the allegation that he has received a dishonorable discharge. Respondent further states that there is no requirement found in the North Carolina Statutes that a candidate for Sheriff receive a certain form of discharge from the United States military,” the response states.
The response also included an affidavit from Janet Lynn Cochran, an employee with the Swain sheriff’s office that conducts background checks through the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and the N.C. Division of Criminal Information.
“Within the last week, I submitted a request for a background check on Curtis A. Cochran through DCI, which includes records maintained by the NCIC and those found in the III (Interstate Identification Index),” Janet Cochran stated. “This report states that Cutis A. Cochran has not been charged with, or convicted of, a felony in the state of North Carolina, any of the 49 states in the United States or in the United States federal court system.”
In the motion to dismiss, Sawyer claims Lowery’s protest came too late since Cochran has been elected in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and no protest was filed during the canvassing period.
“In this case, the protest was filed approximately 11 years, 7 years and 3 years after the respective canvasses,” he stated. “Such a protest is untimely as to 2006, 2010 and 2014 and may not be considered by this panel.”
While the response calls on the Board of Elections to dismiss the protest and challenge against the sheriff, the local board can’t conduct any business until the State Board of Elections makes appointments to local boards to make them whole.