Religious leaders up in arms over swingers club

Editor’s note: This article contains explicit subject matter and language that may be offensive to some readers.

An adult-themed “swingers” club located adjacent to three churches in downtown Lenoir has ignited protest and caused an investigation by city officials.

Western Carolina Friends – which promotes itself on an Internet message board as “probably the coolest club around” – is operating in a three-story building at 901 Ashe Ave., and is owned by Blue Ridge Community Action nonprofit organization.

In the context of the club and a social networking Internet site associated with it, swinging is slang for couples and individuals who engage in various types of mutual nudity and sexual activity.

According to Lenoir City Manager Lane Bailey, no permits have been issued for the site, which sits across the street from First United Methodist Church and one block from First Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church.

“There’s no building permit issued, and there’s no zoning permit,” Bailey said Tuesday. “No fire inspection has been performed. We’re trying to take the appropriate action.”

The property where the club is located is zoned “B-3 – General Business” and does not provide for adult-oriented establishments. Bailey could not clarify whether or not the club is in violation of the zoning ordinance or if specific permitting is required before such an establishment can operate.

An application has been received from Jimmy Earl Hilton Jr. for water and sewer service at the location. Hilton lists himself as the owner of the building under a post office box mailing address. The post office box matches to a residential property at 5940 Melrose Lane in the Grace Chapel community that is owned by Jimmy E. and Tamatha M. Hilton.

The News-Topic contacted a man who identified himself as “Jimmy” at the telephone number listed in the water and sewer service application. The man said he was on another call and to try back in 15 minutes. On the second call, there was no answer, and a voice mail was left that was not returned.

In addition, phone messages left Tuesday with Blue Ridge Community Action Executive Director Mattie Patterson were not returned.

A Web site for Western Carolina Friends advertised that the grand opening for the club took place Jan. 26 with 80 members signing up for the event. It is unclear how many people actually participated, though many couples with local addresses actively participate in a related Internet adult social network site known as SwingLifeStyle.

An event called Cupid’s Quest Part 2 is scheduled to take place Saturday, Feb. 23, and another one called Where’s Me Gold is planned for March 8.

The news of the operation has disturbed city officials and church leaders. More than a dozen people attended a prayer meeting at Lenoir’s First Presbyterian Church Tuesday afternoon.

“We are deeply disturbed to hear about this,” First Presbyterian Church Pastor Rob Hinman said. “We are very sorry for anybody caught up in that lifestyle. I’m concerned about somebody who thinks this is going to make their lifestyle better.”

Though alcohol is not sold on the premises, the club allows “BYOB” or “bring your own beverage” on the property, according to the site. This is another concern for both church and city leaders.

City officials still have several questions regarding the legality of the operation.

“We’re looking at the alcohol and the zoning,” Bailey said. “The only thing that has happened is they had the water changed. This is not something I would have expected for Lenoir.”

Information from both Web sites indicates differing levels of activity on each floor, depending on the interest of the participants. The club advertises that it has 18 “hospitality” rooms on the third floor, including some with themes. On the middle floor, there is a lounge area, bar, a private dancing room, strip poker, a naked Twister game room, a store for lingerie and sexual toys, and pool tables.

The main level features a dance floor with a stripper pole and stage, along with a bar, a smokers lounge and a midnight breakfast buffet.

Admission price for the first event was $55, and memberships to the Western Carolina Friends are sold for $40 per couple. Prospective members must fill out an application and be approved to participate in the club’s events, according to the site.

The SwingLifeStyle Internet site serves as a worldwide forum for participants in the swingers scene to advertise their interest and availability in meeting other couples or individuals. Members rank their interest in categories of “Tame” “Moderate” or “Wild.”

According to the Web site’s descriptions: Tame participants say they are interested in appearing nude with other people, while Moderates are willing to touch and play with people. The Wild category involves participating in sexual activity with one or more people.

The SwingLifeStyle Web site includes pictures of some of the participants in various stages of dress and undress. Members also can gain access to more sexually explicit pictures. The site does not require a credit card for access, only registration information. A person of any age who has an Internet connection can retrieve detailed information.

Lenoir is not the only area with active swingers groups. Area events currently are advertised for Hickory, Statesville, Kings Mountain, Gastonia and Charlotte. According to Wikipedia.com, there are approximately 3,000 “swingers” clubs worldwide.

Any locale is too close for Hinman.

“Our concern is its proximity to Caldwell County,” Hinman said. “I wouldn’t want to see this happen out in the middle of the woods. I am not naive by the presence of all this and for every home that has Internet access.”

Hinman added that he fears much of the work that has gone into improving the downtown area will be sullied by the presence of the club.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve worked to revitalize downtown,” he said. “This business will do much to minimize the progress we’ve made. You hate to see all that good work to beautify downtown and to have families be able to come here. Do we really want to underwrite a business like this?”

The Google Negotiations, Part 1: Several sites considered

According to documents released by the North Carolina Department of Commerce this week, Google examined several other sites in North Carolina and discussed splitting its sever farm project between Caldwell County and Gaston County.

The materials were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the News-Topic and other media outlets. Additional documents by the Commerce Department, along with those from local government, are being prepared for release.

Google announced Jan. 18 that it will build a large-scale data processing center in the Overlook Drive and Virginia Street area of Lenoir. In addition to tax incentives granted by Caldwell County and Lenoir, the company received a $4.77 million Jobs Development Investment Grant from the state’s Economic Investment Committee. The state incentives are targeted to the creation of a minimum of 168 jobs by 2010.

A global leader in Internet search and Web applications, Google also obtained a tax exemption on power usage and computer equipment from the state.

IDENTIFYING A SITE

The state first became aware of Google’s interest in a Nov. 14, 2005 e-mail from Google representative Taliver Heath. In the e-mail Heath inquired about “what counties/regions should I be looking at for favorable property tax rates?”

One month later, Google Senior Leader Rhett Weiss met at the Duke Energy offices in Charlotte with the economic development directors of Burke County and McDowell County, along with Caldwell County Economic Development Commission Executive Director John Howard and Marketing Director Alan Wood. Harry Poovey, a state economic development manager for Duke Energy, also was at the meeting.

Google officials returned to the area in February and toured sites in Caldwell, Rutherford and Rockingham counties. After follow-up meetings with Caldwell and Rockingham officials Feb. 22-23, Caldwell emerged as the front-runner for the project. In a Feb. 24 e-mail to Poovey, Weiss said he would be returning to Lenoir “with a couple of professional engineers from the client’s consulting engineering firm to perform a detailed site investigation.”

SECRECY AND UNCERTAINTY

Google’s demands to keep the project quiet began in March, with the company pressing the Commerce Department to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). In a March 3 e-mail circulated within the Commerce Department, its general counsel and state legislative liaison Don Hobart said, “In light of the Department’s status under the public records and open meetings act, we will not enter into an NDA.”

Four days later, March 7, Weiss sent an e-mail to Commerce Department representative Peggy Anderson and said “please dissuade your department’s counsel from suggesting any changes (to the NDA) at all…Trust me, getting any changes made will take a long time if made at all…At best the project’s progress in NC will slow down appreciably relative to its progress elsewhere. That slow-down effectively could put NC out of the running due to timeline constraints.”

Anderson had written Weiss a day earlier, suggesting that “it would be a good idea to get a proposal from Gaston County on the Gaston Technology Park…The incentive proposal is their typical package. I have told them they will need to make it more attractive.”

In an e-mail to Howard March 8, Weiss forwarded the non-disclosure agreement for Lenoir and Caldwell County officials to sign. Weiss noted that the Commerce Department had not signed the NDA and said, &#8220Commerce’s failure so far to sign the NDA is causing the client concern and could have quite a chilling effect on the project and its communications, if this course continues.”

In a March 13 letter to Weiss, Commerce Secretary Jim Fain sought to assure him of confidentiality. “I will take the necessary steps to ensure that we limit access within our Department to the identity of the company and the existence of details of your project,” Fain said.

The next day Weiss met with Commerce and N.C. Department of Revenue officials then traveled to Lenoir for discussions with the Caldwell EDC, Caldwell Commission Chairwoman Faye Higgins, then-County Manager Bobby White, Lenoir Mayor David Barlow, City Manager Lane Bailey, Lenoir Planning Director Chuck Beatty, Bernhardt Furniture attorney Jason Hensley and Poovey. The trip also included a stop in Gastonia to tour its technology park.

By April 6, Anderson sent an e-mail to Hobart and said, “Rhett (Weiss) said that we are not considering sites other than Caldwell County at this time. If for any reason the buildings cannot be located on that site, we have other sites that have already been considered that we can fall back on. The client does not want me to expand the search at this time…The bottom line is that they want a break on the property tax, sales tax and possible Duke Power rate reduction.”

One week later, Weiss wrote to Howard about efforts by the company to acquire land owned by Bernhardt Furniture Industries. “(A)nother constraint I’m up against is, believe it or not, I have a small budget for land acquisition per se, and all these various and sundry parcels combined with Bernhardt’s prices are creating a brain teaser as to how to acquire everything within budget.

“We don’t want ‘free land’ on the one hand…but we also don’t want to deploy more capital there than need be…Between you and me, and I do not want this circulated, we will not pay Bernhardt’s prices for their parcels (clearly too high), but at this point I’m truly not sure what a reasonable counter-offer will be…”

In an April 21 memorandum from Anderson to Sandy Jordan, the Commerce Department’s director of business recruitment, she said, “Project H-3 is considering Caldwell County for a high-tech data center. They had planned to do a mega-site at the Lenoir location but do not feel that the site will accommodate the large footprints they have planned. They have asked for additional information on the Gastonia Technology Park as a possibility for splitting the project into two locations.

“The company is also considering South Carolina and New York for the project.”

Vote-buying defendants guilty

Guilty on all counts.

That was the jury’s verdict Friday afternoon in the trial of three Caldwell County men accused of conspiring to buy votes in the 2002 general election.

The jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours before returning its verdict in Statesville. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Voorhees said it may take a couple of months before the court sentences Wayne Shatley, Carlos “Sunshine” Hood and Ross “Toogie” Banner.

According to Suellen Pierce, spokesperson the U.S. Attorney – Western District of North Carolina, Shatley could receive as many as 20 years in prison, Hood – 10 years imprisonment and Banner – 15 years.

The defendants were named in a nine-count federal indictment. Count One alleges that all three defendants along with Anita and Valerie Moore conspired to pay voters to vote and to register in the 2002 general election. The purpose of the conspiracy was to secure the election of the Republican Party’s nominees and party’s nominee for Caldwell County sheriff, Gary Clark.

Shatley, Hood and Banner were found guilty of Count One. Anita and Valerie Moore pled guilty to Count One earlier in the year and were witnesses for the prosecution in the four-day trial in U.S. District Court.

The testimony of the Moore sisters on Wednesday pointed at Shatley as financing and leading the criminal conspiracy.

Shatley was found guilty of Counts Two, Four and Seven. Count Two alleges that Shatley and Anita Moore offered to pay Latoya Craig to vote. In Count Four, Shatley and Anita Moore were accused of paying Donna Lynn Harshaw to vote. Count Seven alleges that Shatley, Anita Moore and Hood aided and abetted one another to pay Charles Harbison to vote.

Hood was also found guilty of Count Seven.

Banner was the defendant named in counts eight and nine. He was accused of paying Barbara Banner to vote in Count Eight. Count Nine states that Banner paid Herman “Pete” Michaux to vote.

According to testimony of the numerous witnesses who said they were paid to vote or to register to vote, voters were paid $25 to vote for Clark or a straight Republican ticket and $10 to register to vote.

At the conclusion of the trial, the defendants were not taken into custody and were allowed to leave. All three are currently free on $25,000 bond. Prosecutor Josh Howard motioned for Voorhees to revoke Shatley’s bond because the investigation into the conspiracy revealed that Shatley was a danger to society and a flight risk. But Voorhees denied the motion.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Matthew Martens reminded the jury that 16 persons had testified under oath that the trio along with the Moore sisters had bought or had attempted to buy their votes.

In the closing arguments of the three defense attorneys, they attacked the credibility of the witnesses, many of whom had criminal records. They said that the bank and phone records submitted by the prosecution did not substantiate the trio’s involvement in a criminal conspiracy. They were especially critical of the testimony of the Moore sisters.

It was noted that Anita Moore admitted to lying to under oath at the Caldwell County Board of Elections in December 2002 by denying her involvement in the conspiracy. It was also stated that it is up to the sole discretion of the prosecutors in the case to grant the sisters, who have not been sentenced yet, a reduction in their sentences. It was implied that they may have lied on the stand to please prosecutors.

“Their testimony was bought and paid for,” stated Banner’s attorney, Andrew Jennings.

Shatley’s attorney, Steven Brackett, stated that prosecutors coerced Anita Moore to pleading guilty. “She sold her soul and pled guilty to something she didn’t do. She folded up. Anita Moore was scared,” he told the jury.

Banner’s attorney, Victoria Jayne, said that Anita Moore was “the very definition of a lack of credibility.”

The defense attorneys all stated that the investigation was politically motivated. It was noted that the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation was first notified of the vote buying conspiracy by former Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office detective Eddie Taylor. Taylor lost his job when Clark was sworn into office after defeating former Caldwell County Sheriff Roger Hutchings in the election.

“Terror struck in the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department. They had to dirty up the 2002 election,” Brackett told the jury.

While it was noted in trial that Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office investigators under Hutchings’ administration had video taped the vote buying activity, the video tape was not shown to the jury. The jury was reminded of this fact during the defense attorneys’ closing arguments.

“Why wasn’t the video tape shown? It’s because it doesn’t show the facts that the government wants you to see,” Jennings told the jury.

All of the defendants declined to comment on verdict. Brackett said he was disappointed with the outcome of the trial. “The important thing now is the sentencing,” he said.

Of the prosecution’s victory, Martens said, “We are pleased that justice was done.”

Fifteen people testified before the Caldwell County elections board in December 2002 that they sold their votes to a handful of people working at Caldwell County Republican headquarters in the days before the election.

Information presented at the hearing also implied that up to 250 voters sought to sell their votes. The lawyers for the Republican Party’s candidates claim only a handful of votes may have been changed. No one has linked either the GOP’s candidates or the Republican Party to the vote-buying.

In the 2002 general election, Clark won the sheriff’s race by 746 votes. Clark received 11,588 votes and former Sheriff Roger Hutchings, a Democrat, received 10,842 votes. Republicans Tim Sanders and Alden Starnes also defeated Democrat Bill Wall in the race for two seats on the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners.

Cobey: Voters need to get rid of ‘vacant’ governor

LENOIR – North Carolina needs “an upbeat and a can-do governor, instead of a vacant governor,” says former Republican GOP Chairman Bill Cobey.

Cobey, now a candidate for governor, stopped in Lenoir Friday morning to meet with key leaders of the Caldwell County Republican Party. Caldwell County was one of 15 counties in the state that Cobey visited in three days to meet with Republican party leaders.

Cobey was introduced by former N.C. Senator Ken Moore of Lenoir. Moore said all the GOP candidates for governor “are fantastic and are our friends.” However, Moore said Cobey “stands out” as a Republican candidate for governor. Cobey resigned on July 21 as chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party in order to run as a Republican candidate for governor, Moore said.

Cobey served two terms as state chairman of the party. Under his leadership, the party got on a sound financial base for the first time in its history, purchased a new headquarters buildings, recruited candidates and engineered Republican victories in 2000 and 2002.

Cobey, 64, is a former congressman and athletics director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a graduate of Emory University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He also earned a master’s degree in marketing from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Durham with his wife, Nancy. They have two children and three grandchildren.

Other GOP gubernatorial candidates include state Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine of Wilmington, Davie County Commissioner Dan Barrett of Mocksville, Southern Pines insurance executive George Little and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot.

Cobey was elected to congress in 1984 to represent the Fourth District in U.S. Congress. He then served in the administration of Governor Jim Martin, first as deputy secretary of transportation and then as secretary of the department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources.

Cobey’s past experience includes management consulting and municipal management. Since 1997, he has worked with local governments in North Carolina, helping them to compete for and receive grants from the federal government.

Cobey commended Moore for his work in the State Senate and N.C. Rep. Edgar Starnes for his work in the State House.

Cobey said he decided to run for a second term as state party chairman because the job of building the party had not been completed. However, Cobey said he decided to run for governor after being asked to run by numerous people to help the Republican Party. As state chairman of the party, Cobey said, “I never worked so hard in a volunteer job. We were able to build up the party despite having no governor in the mansion. We need a Republican running for governor who understands the Republican Party. I learned about the party while serving as state party chairman.”

North Carolina needs a governor “who is upbeat and a can do governor.” Democratic Governor Mike Easley “doesn’t show up anywhere – even for his own party. Where was he at when Pillowtex when down and when people in western North Carolina lost their jobs.”

North Carolina is giving multimillion tax credits to industries to locate in the state, Cobey said. “A study found that 96 percent of those industries would come to North Carolina without those tax credits,” he said. “And we are doing nothing for existing industries in North Carolina. That’s immoral.”

U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-Catawba, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina are contacting President George Bush and expressing concern about jobs North Carolina has lost, Cobey said. “Gov. Easley sent the president a video tape,” he said. “I doubt that he has ever met President Bush. I know President Bush and could call him. I love the people of this state and I know we need more and better jobs.”

Most new jobs are created by small business, Cobey said. “We have to create a climate where small business can thrive,” he said. “We have to reduce the tax burden and the regulatory requirements.”

If elected governor, Cobey said he will work to get “a level playing field” for North Carolina’s textile and furniture industries. “I believe in free trade, but we have to get a level playing field with China,” he said. “We stood up for the steel industry. It’s time we stood up for textile and furniture.”

North Carolina also needs “an educated workforce,” Cobey said. “We have a good community college system, but we can do better. I admit I do not know all the answers, but I am uniquely qualified to be governor. I have been a town manager, a cabinet secretary and chairman of the state Republican Party. I can see the big picture.”

Cobey said Easley “does not recruit industries or meet with industries. He has made no calls to industries while he has been CEO (chief executive office). He doesn’t interact with the Legislature and then he pouts when they don’t do what he wants them to do. I don’t know what he does with his time.”

North Carolina has the highest taxes in the Southeast, Cobey said. “That’s because of tax hike Mike (Governor Easley),” he said. “We have to reduce taxes. While he was in office he implemented the highest tax increase in dollars in the history of the state.”

Cobey said North Carolina “also has to cut back on spending. We need a Taxpayers Protection Act that is part of the Constitution.” He credited conservative Democrats in the 1970s with placing the requirement for the state to have a balanced budget in the Constitution.

Caldwell County Commission Chairman Herb Greene said the state for the past couple of years has balanced the state budget on the backs of local governments. Caldwell County is a partner in a lawsuit against the state keeping local government reimbursement funds, Greene noted. He said the governor this year also may keep E911 funds to balance the state budget.

North Carolina has suffered because “of no leadership,” Cobey said. “We have a vacant governor.”

State government has to be cut, Cobey said. “Governor Easley had a hiring freeze and state employment has grown,” he said. “He has three chiefs of staff when Governor Martin had one chief of staff. He pays them outrageous salaries while state employees get no raises. If you are governor, budget cuts should start in your own office. We also have to streamline and make state government more efficient.”

Some people attending asked why Easley continues to have a fairly high approval rating. Cobey said the governor’s recent popularity rating is 59 percent. “Because he has done nothing he has done nothing to upset people,” Cobey said. “When we tell people what it has cost the state they will be mad. Easley has a 39 percent negative rating, which is the real killer in politics.”

Some people attending expressed concern about Attorney General Roy Cooper running ads on television about telemarketing calls when he is running for governor. “We need to draw the line on political ads that abuse public funds,” Cobey said.

Cobey said he had “a good mentor in Jim Martin. When he was governor he focused on the one thing most important to North Carolina – economic development.” While governor, Martin also was responsible for the construction of Interstate-40 to Wilmington. “If he was governor, then the proposed intrastate system of limited access – would be built,” Cobey said.

North Carolina’s highway division system was developed in 1931 and has not changed since then, Cobey said. “It makes no sense,” he said. “It should be organized around urban centers with connections to rural areas.”

If elected governor, Cobey said he will work to improve public education. “We need to pay our teachers more money and take the disruptive students out of the classroom,” he said. “They need to be put in alternative classes or schools. We can’t expect our teachers to be able to teach when they have disruptive students.”

There needs to be “an accountability system for our public schools,” Cobey said. “The way schools operate needs to be decided locally. One size doesn’t fit all.”

All students should be taught the basics, Cobey said. However, he said vocational programs should be available in high schools for students who do not plan on going to college. “Why should they have to wait and go to a community college?” he asked.

As governor, Cobey said he will work to make sure North Carolina gets its share of federal dollars and to ensure that special appropriation (pork barrel) money is distributed fairly throughout the state. When he was in the Martin administration, Cobey said he and others in the transportation department saved the railroad from Murphy to Dillsboro. The Great Smokey Railway trip on that line generates $50 million a year for the local economy, he said.

Cobey also said he will work to reform the Medicaid system. “North Carolina is one of seven states in the nation that requires local governments to pay a portion of Medicaid,” he said. “People are receiving Medicaid in this state who are twice the poverty rate. In most states, people get Medicaid if they are one and a half times the poverty rate.”

If elected, Cobey said he will work for Republicans to be on the Council of State, to have a bigger majority in the State House and to take control of the State Senate. “I am a team player,” he said. “It’s not about Bill Cobey. It’s about the Republican Party.”

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