E-mail shows info was leaked to officials during Britt probe

By on December 15, 2015

Judge Jerry Tillett.

KDH Police Chief Gary Britt.

An e-mail recently re-examined by the Voice that discusses a 2011 internal investigation of Kill Devil Hills Police Chief Gary Britt raises further questions about the impartiality of the panel that conducted the inquiry.

The e-mail also suggests that the town and League of Municipality officials had decided to move against Superior Court Judge Jerry R. Tillett before the panel was even formed.

Last week, a North Carolina State Bar disciplinary committee said it would pursue an ethics complaint against Tillett, in spite of concerns expressed by media, the legislature and members of the Bar itself.

It could lead to Tillett’s disbarment and force him to resign from the bench.

Tillett’s troubles grew out of his involvement in complaints against the chief that had led to the internal investigation. Tillett has already been disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission on the same allegations in the Bar’s action.

Had the investigation found fault with Britt, it was likely late District Attorney Frank Parrish would have pursued a complaint recommending Britt’s removal at a hearing in which Tillet would have presided.

In September 2011, Kill Devil Hills quietly put Britt on suspension after receiving a letter from Parrish informing the town he was about to remove the chief based on complaints in a petition filed with the Superior Court by two former and two current town police officers.

Those same four individuals also filed a civil suit against the town.

In December, 2011, Britt was just as quietly re-instated after an internal investigation by a panel composed of three retired police chiefs from across the state determined the chief had committed no wrongdoing but needed to improve his management skills.

After media inquiries, the town released a statement in January 2012 acknowledging the investigation and revealing that the town’s insurance company, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, had conducted the investigation, hand-picked the panel and, not surprisingly, cleared Britt.

The Voice and others raised doubts about the impartiality of the investigation, given that the League, as the insurer, would be on the hook for potential civil damages if the investigation confirmed the accusations leveled in the petition and the town lost in the civil action.

During the same time period, Parrish suddenly reversed his decision to remove Britt and, as we now know from an internal e-mail, opted instead to base his decision on the findings of the League investigation, which in e-mails from Assistant Town Manger Shawn Murphy, was routinely described simply as an administrative review.

As it turns out, another e-mail dated Oct. 21, 2011, indicates that the panel had been turning over its findings to the League while the investigation was still underway and in turn revealing the same information to Murphy and Town Manager Debbie Diaz as well as Britt’s attorney, Trish Holland.

Four days after the investigation began, Steve Lee, the claims director for the League of Municipalities, sent an e-mail to Diaz and Murphy that starts out by saying: “I just wanted to check in to make sure you both have been fully kept informed of the investigation to date by either Dan Hartzog or Gerald Galloway. If not, please let me know.”

Hartzog was the lead attorney chosen by the League to defend the town against the lawsuit and petitions filed by the former and current town police officers.

Gerald Galloway, the former police chief of Southern Pines, N.C., was the lead investigator of the investigative panel.

Lee then goes on to reveal details of a seven-hour interview the panel held with Britt, pointing out that Britt had failed to reveal he had sent a letter to the state’s Criminal Standards Board accusing the board and his predecessor of improperly investigating one of Britt’s officers.

Britt and Diaz both wrote letters of apology to the board. Meanwhile, former Chief Ray Davis contacted Lee threatening a lawsuit against the town over personal allegations Britt made against him in his letter.

Britt was also required to send a letter of apology to Davis.

Thus, Lee also reveals the following:

“I did call Trish Holland, who as you know is representing Chief Britt, and told her of the letter exchange and former Chief Davis calling me. This information did not come out in the 7 hour interview of Chief Britt and I asked that she talk with him about it, as she needed to discuss the matter with her client.”

If the investigation of Britt was truly impartial and independent, how did the league’s director of claims know Britt failed to reveal his exchange with the Criminal Standards Board in the seven-hour interview and why were the investigators sharing this information with Lee?

And rather than the investigation being used to determine whether charges leveled at Britt were true, it appears that leaks of information allowed the League to help patch potential holes in Britt’s story before the investigation was complete.

Lee does even more, however, by playing a sort of middleman in bridging communication between Britt’s attorney and the town and revealing that even before the investigation of Britt began, a grander scheme aimed at harming Tillett was unfolding.

“It would be improper for Trish, representing the Chief, to report back to you, as the Chief’s interests at some point, could diverge from the Town’s own interests in this investigation, but I did want to tell you the following:

“The reason that I asked Trish to represent the Chief is that she sat on the NC State Bar Council for 6 years, which is the committee that hears allegations of impropriety against members of the bar.”

“She currently sits on another committee, the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, that hears challenges to the professionalism of Lawyers in NC. She has discussed Judge Tillet’s activity with the Executive Director of that committee (who reports to Chief Justice of North Carolina-Sarah Parker, Supreme Court and Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals-John Martin. That committee is chaired by Justice John Martin.”)

“That committee meets today and will hear of the activity of Judge Tillet.

“Whether they choose to report his conduct to the Judicial Standards Commission would be their decision,” Lee concluded.

The e-mail suggests that town officials, members of the League and the North Carolina State Bar were focused more on Tillett than the accusations swirling around Chief Britt and his defense.

In the next story we will address how this same e-mail suggests communication between then-District Attorney Frank Parrish, the League of Municipalities and Britt’s attorney and how town officials were kept in the loop.

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