Innocent until proven guilty

Published 10:51 am Friday, December 21, 2012

GATESVILLE – Despite the criminal accusations facing him, Leslie Byrum legally remains a member of the Gates County Board of Education.

That board assembled here Thursday morning in a special called meeting to discuss Byrum’s situation….his arrest last month, following an investigation conducted by the North Carolina SBI, on two felony counts of exploitation of the elderly. He posted a $3,000 unsecured bond and has a scheduled court date of Jan. 28.

“We called this meeting to address a situation that came about in the county with Mr. Byrum and the indictment that came in to him,” said Doug Lilley, Chairman of the Gates County Board of Education. “I heard of this news from random phones made to me. I contacted Mr. Byrum and he was forward with me. He stated basically everything that was stated in the newspaper. I appreciated his comments.

Then I contacted Glendale Boone, our vice chair, and we decided at that time to call a meeting to address this; make public that this board was aware of this situation.”

The meeting was originally scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 12, but was postponed (until Dec. 22) due to “circumstances beyond our control,” Lilley said.

Lilley again stressed the fact that the school board was aware of Byrum’s situation.

“We want the public to know how this board stands legally; how this board stands with our students; how this board has no hidden agenda and we don’t intend to have any hidden agenda,” Lilley stressed.

“The integrity of this board is what we’re aiming to look at right now,” he continued. “We don’t want to have anything that distracts this board from taking care of the business of our children.”

Lilley called upon John Leidy, legal council to the Gates County Board of Education, to explain what the board can and cannot do legally as it applies to Byrum’s indictment and arrest.

Leidy said he has researched the state’s General Statutes as they apply to elected officials, in particular members of local boards of education.

“I can confirm that in North Carolina, board members are not rendered ineligible from serving simply because they have been charged with a crime, whether that be a misdemeanor or a felony,” Leidy said. “The fact that someone has been charged is really of no significance because as everyone knows one of the hallmarks of our system of government is that an individual is deemed innocent until they have been proven guilty in a court of law.”

Leidy said that as a result, the local school board does not have the authority to remove a board member based on the grounds they’ve been charged with a crime, nor can the board compel a board member to resign under those circumstances. However, the scenario changes if an elected board member is convicted of a felony.

“Like any other public official in North Carolina, they become ineligible to continue serving on a public body,” Leidy said, referencing a felony conviction. “At that point they can be removed. But until a felony conviction occurs, a board is not able to remove someone and that board member is able to continue to serve.”

Byrum, moving from the board table to the podium, asked to make a few remarks. He stated he wanted his remarks recorded for the official record.

“I feel that I have been falsely accused; I feel in my heart that I am innocent,” Byrum said. “I cannot discuss my case because there are other factors involved in my case that might turn out to lead to other matters. It is attorney-client privilege.”

He continued, “I was also instructed by someone to visit each (school) board member on an individual basis. I decided that was not in the best interest of the Gates County Public School system because I did not want for anyone to get out and say that I influenced you in any way of how you feel about me.”

Byrum, a 14-year veteran of the school board, offered an apology to his colleagues concerning a possible breach of integrity of the elected body by the public.

“I feel that (integrity) has been broken; it was not broken by me, it was broken by our fellow mankind,” Byrum said. “I do believe it could have been avoided. But I stand here today that until proven guilty I remain innocent in my heart.”

Byrum said he had a few corrections to information printed in this newspaper when his indictment and arrest were reported. He said it was a female law enforcement officer that conducted his interview, not a male officer. He also said the victim in this case, whose name was not supplied to this newspaper, is deceased (passing away earlier this year).

“I also have a correction a statement I made to the newspaper,” Byrum said. “I stated that I had been taking care of this couple for over 12 years. I went back to investigate my case with my attorney and it is over 18 years since I developed a relationship with this couple, who are now both deceased.”

Byrum added that he feels the majority of local citizens still believe in him.

“I’m honored; I’m blessed; the Bible tells us that if we walk with integrity, we will walk securely,” said Byrum as he began to choke back tears. “Today, I walk with integrity. I believe God is with me; He is my witness and I believe I will prevail.”

At that point, Byrum asked to be excused from the remainder of the meeting in order for his colleagues to have the opportunity to freely discuss the issue at hand. But before he left, Byrum offered additional remarks.

“I’m hurt that someone, some people, tried to jeopardize the integrity of this board,” he said. “If I could go back and have the opportunity to serve this couple and the actions that were taken, I would do the same thing with grace, honor and love.”

At the close of Byrum’s remarks, Lilley asked if any of the board members wanted to offer comments. Newly seated school board member Claire Whitehurst asked Leidy for advice on how the board should properly respond to public inquiries about Byrum’s situation.

“If contacted, the board needs to say that they are aware of Mr. Byrum’s situation,” Leidy responded. “You can say the board has met where the issue was discussed and that he (Byrum) addressed the board about it. He did not share any details, but acknowledged he has been charged and he says he is innocent and that the board is not in a position to do anything at this point. He is elected to his position and will continue in that position until he is convicted, if that turns out to be the case.”

“I will do everything I can to make sure that this board continues to handle school related business only,” Lilley said. “When it becomes a public outing for people to hit at this situation we will try to defuse that just as quick as we can because this has nothing to do with the school system, it’s a personal issue.”

According to Gates County Sheriff Ed Webb, Byrum, an accountant by trade, once served an elderly female of the county.

“Mr. Byrum was in charge of her financial affairs and allegedly removed in excess of $10,000 from her account,” Webb told this newspaper earlier this month.

Webb said due to Byrum’s position in the community as an elected official, he chose to have the North Carolina SBI handle the investigation.

“The allegations against Mr. Byrum were reported to us in June or July of this year,” Webb said. “At that time I contacted our District Attorney (Frank Parrish of Elizabeth City) to fill him in on the status of this case and we both decided that the SBI was the best way to handle the investigation.”

An SBI agent from the Greenville office was assigned to the case. Webb said that agent completed the investigation in early November and warrants were drawn based on the findings of that probe into Byrum’s alleged criminal actions.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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