DOBSON — A Surry County official will serve probation and resign from office, after pleading guilty to charges linked to falsifying county travel vouchers.
County Commissioner Paul Johnson received a suspended sentence of six to 17 months behind bars, as part of a plea bargain reached last week between Johnson and a Special Deputy Attorney General prosecuting the case. He also will serve a sentence of 36 months of supervised probation. Johnson was ordered to pay $8,299 in restitution and was fined $2,000. He must complete 100 hours of community service throughout the period of the next eight months.
Johnson also offered a letter of resignation from his elected office. Johnson’s defense attorney, Scott Lowry, said he would be delivering the letter to county officials directly following Tuesday’s sentencing hearing.
Lowry also offered a cashier’s check for the full amount of restitution due in the case.
Nearly a year ago Johnson was indicted on four felony counts of obtaining property by false pretense. The charges stemmed from a State Bureau of Investigation probe into the travel vouchers of top Surry County officials. Johnson said he was accused of falsely reporting about $4,000 in travel expenses for which he received compensation from the county.
Johnson pleaded guilty to all four felony charges last Tuesday in an unscheduled court appearance. By the motion of Lowry, the plea transcript in the case was sealed. The terms of Johnson’s sentence also were not released until Tuesday’s sentencing hearing.
“I really considered not accepting your pleas for one reason,” Presiding Judge A. Moses Massey told the defendant.
“It has generally been my philosophy and my policy that anyone who steals serve some time in jail.”
The judge noted that he had made exceptions in the past and did so with Johnson because he had acknowledged his wrongdoing.
“Secondly, unlike 99.9 percent of the people who come before this court guilty of committing a felony, you’ve said, ‘to show how sorry I am here is the restitution’ to make the citizens of Surry County whole. And that is very significant.”
At the close of the proceeding, Massey cautioned Johnson and urged him to continue serving the county in an unofficial capacity.
“Probation is not a cakewalk, take it very seriously sir or you take the very real possibility of going behind bars for six to 17 months.”
Lowry said Johnson had no comment when leaving the probation office at the courthouse after the hearing.
“It has been my pleasure to serve the citizens of Surry County as a commissioner for the past 19 years,” wrote Johnson in a letter addressed to Surry County Board of Commissioners Chairman R.F. “Buck” Golding. “I apologize to each commissioner and to all citizens of Surry County for my conduct that has led to my resignation.”
Though he voluntarily resigned, the felony conviction bars Johnson from holding elected office in North Carolina. Johnson had filed to run for re-election and faced opposition from fellow Republican Van Tucker in the March primary election.
Board of Elections Director Susan Jarrell said ballots have already been printed for the primary. Thus, Johnson’s name will appear on the ballot. However, votes for Johnson simply won’t be counted, handing Tucker the March victory. He will then run against Democrat Ronald Bowman in the November election to become the East District’s next elected commissioner.
The board of commissioners acted quickly upon learning of Johnson’s resignation. The board will hold a special meeting on Friday at 9 a.m. at the Surry County Government Center.
According to the notice of the meeting, the board will declare a vacancy and possibly fill the vacancy.
Golding said the matter of filling the vacancy left behind by Johnson is one for his board. He said the Surry County Republican Executive Committee may make a recommendation for filling the seat. However, the final decision is made by the board of commissioners.
Reach Andy at (336) 415-4698 and Terri at (336) 415-4734.