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Scott Sexton: Group leading renewed legal battle over Winston-Salem's Confederate statue remains largely faceless

As lawsuits go, United Daughters of the Confederacy — the James B. Gordon, chapter 211 to be specific — vs. City of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County is far less exciting than it sounds.

It’s tedious. Dull. Twelve pages filled with such scintillating terms as LLC, warranty deeds and four separate claims for relief.

Not least of which is the final claim — a standard request for the city to pay the legal fees being for lawyer James A. Davis on behalf of his client, the mostly anonymous and largely silent members of the Gordon chapter and the UDC.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m staring down the barrel of a civil lawsuit, I’d sure like to know who’s wielding the stick. Other than the mouthpiece who stands to cash a check, that is.

Fortunately for the curious taxpayers of Winston-Salem, UDC v. Winston-Salem contains a kernel of information.

Stepping into the fore

Tucked in behind the signature (and state bar number) of attorney Davis, on page 13, is a notarized affidavit/verification that pulls back the veil of secrecy.

“Kim Crews, first being duly sworn, deposes and says:

That she is the President of the James B. Gordon Chapter 221 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Plaintiff in the above action; that she has read the foregoing Complaint and knows the contents thereof … .”

But who is Kim Crews, how did she wind up the president of the local UDC and why did she agree to step into an ugly legal battle over a Confederate monument erected primarily to stick a thumb in the eye of Winston-Salem’s Black residents?

Clues can be found in public records. Various searchable databases turned up seven Kim Crews in North Carolina; four are local to Davie, Forsyth and Guilford counties.

It was just an (educated) guess, but the one who lives on a private road named “Confederate Drive” seemed the most likely, however.

Not surprisingly, that Kim Crews did not respond to an old-fashioned letter posing a few questions.

But attorney Davis did respond.

“The complaint speaks for itself,” he wrote in an email.

Maybe, if you enjoy reading about contracts, limited liability corporations and public land. The gist, as near as I can tell, is this: On second thought, the UDC and the Gordon chapter do own the Confederate statue and the city illegally snatched its property.

“On behalf of Ms. Crews, your request for additional information is respectfully declined. Ms. Crews, upon advice of counsel, will not accept your invitation for an interview.”

That’s probably wise; it’s sound legal advice.

Still, if you’re willing to step into an unpopular — and so far losing — fight, the taxpayers ought to know something about the people waging it.

Revolving presidents

Since the battle over the Confederate statue bubbled over into the public domain, it appears that the state UDC and the local Gordon chapter have had two presidents apiece.

Maybe that’s normal turnover. Maybe it’s not.

After Charlottesville in the summer of 2018, Mayor Allen Joines said that he’d last spoken to Peggy Johnson, the president of the statewide organization, the previous fall when he suggested that the statue be moved to a section of Salem Cemetery where 36 Confederate veterans are buried — an offer that still stands.

The next state division president, Sara Powell, has shown up in court but declines to comment other than through press releases.

Locally, a woman named Cindy Casey was a recent chapter president. In 2017, she defended the statue by saying that it “represents men who died in the Civil War. It has nothing to do with race or racism.”

Plenty of locals argue otherwise. And Casey added not long after that she was not longer with the UDC and that statues and monuments were a difficult subject.

“I absolutely abhor white supremacy,” she said. “It has no place in our community.”

Meanwhile, attorney Davis had more to say in his email, which he attempted to pre-emptively declare off the record.

(Pro tip: Off the record is an agreement that takes place before the fact, not after. Don’t put something in writing and hit send without that agreement. An average citizen might not know that — and we’d give her or him the benefit of the doubt — but a lawyer, especially one dealing in controversial subjects, should know that.)

“In my humble opinion the press should pay more attention to the anarch arising in our streets, the lawless behavior of a vocal mob and the total failure to observe the law,” he wrote. “What say the Journal about the vandalism to public property and lack of respect for the memorials of veterans of the United States. We are not a free nation, the right to free speech, association and from personal harm.

“Do you feel safe walking the streets of Winston-Salem. Will you be next in silencing opinions which is opposite of the mob.”

Nope. Not me. No silencing here. Feel safe in the streets? What? Anybody else hear a dog whistle?

Governor pauses reopening of N.C.'s economy for three weeks, mandates statewide wearing of masks

Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that the potential Phase Three reopening of the state’s economy will be delayed more than three weeks, to at least July 17.

The state could have entered that phase Friday evening.

Instead, Cooper has chosen to continue the “safer-at-home” phase that began May 22.

Cooper also said he will make it mandatory to wear a mask when individuals are out in public with limited exceptions. That mandate goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

The Cooper administration is monitoring five public-health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.

“The numbers we see are a stark warning, and we must pay attention,” Cooper said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported earlier Wednesday 1,721 new cases statewide — the second highest daily total since the pandemic began in mid-March.

Hospitalizations were at 906 as of noon Wednesday, just nine down from the high of 915 set Tuesday. DHHS also reported 20 new virus-related deaths, including two in Forsyth County.

“The indicators (are) moving in the wrong direction,” Cooper said.

Statewide COVID-19 cases and deaths counts were at 12,997 and 533, respectively, on May 8 — the start of the Phase One reopening.

Statewide cases and deaths were at 22,725 and 746, respectively, on May 22 — the start of the Phase Two reopening.

As of noon Wednesday, the cases and deaths were 56,174 and 1,271, respectively.

For Forsyth, the cases counts were 369 on May 8, 894 on May 22 and 2,679 as of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. The deaths counts were five on May 8, nine on May 22 and 31 as of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“North Carolina is relying on the data and the science to lift restrictions responsibly, and right now our increasing numbers show we need to hit the pause button while we work to stabilize our trends,” Cooper said.

“As we watch these trends during the pause, we hope to be able to ease restrictions on playgrounds, museums and gyms.”

GOP response

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, reacted to Cooper’s three-week pause decision by attempting to contrast the response to recent mass gathering events.

“In Roy Cooper’s North Carolina, the governor can walk with a group of protesters with no mask on, but you can’t take your son or daughter to a playground,” Berger said in a statement. “Rioters can break windows and set fires with impunity, but you can’t exercise on an elliptical machine.

“We’re assured that masses of mask-less people gathered together in the streets caused no rise in cases, yet we’re now all required to wear masks because the danger is too great.

“The inconsistencies and hypocrisy continue to eat away at the trust in and credibility of this administration.”

Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and a leading health-care expert in the legislature, said reopening the state’s economy “is a balancing act: the health of the public verses the return to some sense of normal.”

“Generally, I believe you can do both. Open back up our businesses and economy, while informing and asking our citizens to be proactive in practicing caution against the virus. Citizens need to be aware this is a deadly virus, highly contagious, with no vaccine.

“We need to track and trace the outbreaks better to inform those who have been in an area where someone has the virus,” Lambeth said. “This issue divides people in their opinions, and it is still months until we have a vaccination.”

Frustrating decision

Under Phase Two of Cooper’s three-part plan to reopen the state, he chose to keep closed several businesses that had been projected to reopen with similar 50% capacity limits that restaurants and personal-care services must observe.

Those businesses include bars, nightclubs, public playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, and museums.

Cooper said part of his decision was based on not letting too many businesses reopen at the same time, thus potentially increasing the spread of the virus.

Cooper said he understands the frustration of individuals and businesses about the delays to entering Phase Three since May 22.

“This is not where we planned to be or wanted to be,” Cooper said.

“This virus has been very difficult for business owners still under restrictions. They are anxious to open their doors.”

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, has recommended keeping fitness facilities closed until Phase Three.

She has said the facilities carry higher risk for spread of the virus in part because individuals working out are breathing harder and respiratory droplets can be discharged at greater distances.

“We need to all work together so we can protect our families and neighbors, restore our economy, and get people back to work and our children back to school,” Cooper said.

“We want to stabilize our numbers so we can ease restrictions. Slowing the spread helps our economy.”

Socioeconomic impact

The pandemic is understandably testing the patience and goodwill of most individuals, said Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.

“As this becomes more and more the new normal, we will likely see a much more tepid recovery than we would have had if we had been able to keep COVID-19 in check as we reopened,” Madjd-Sadjadi said.

“The longer we stay in this reduced activity period, the more likely that we will see a generation scarred by it.”

Madjd-Sadjadi compared it to the psychological impact that the Great Depression had in terms of individuals cutting back on consumption and being more debt-averse.

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said he remains uncertain that the public health benefits of the pause will outweigh the economic health damage.

“A number of business owners already have decided they never will be able to come back,” Kokai said.

“That list will continue to grow as owners contemplate whether they will be able to return to work after spending another three weeks with lights off and doors closed.”

Ace Speedway to remain closed during Phase Two restrictions, judge rules

An Alamance County judge has ruled in favor of the state, meaning Ace Speedway will remain closed.

Superior Court Judge D. Thomas Lambeth Jr., after presiding over two hearings this month, ruled Wednesday that Ace will have to abide by an abatement order given by Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, to not hold any more races under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase Two orders until the track can develop a plan to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

A proposal by Ace, which would require DHHS approval, must limit spectators at events to 25 people during Phase Two restrictions, which Cooper extended to July 17 because of a continued rise of cases statewide.

“Dr. Cohen’s sworn declaration makes clear that the scientific and medical data show that large mass gatherings like those at Ace Speedway have been linked to increased spread of COVID-19,” Lambeth said in a statement. “She also makes the point in her testimony that when spectators are in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time during a race or other sporting events and those spectators exert increased respiratory effort by yelling and cheering, the rest of spreading the virus is magnified.”

Robert Turner and his son, Jason, the owners and operators of Ace Speedway and their attorney, Chuck Kitchen, argued they had a legal right to make a living, especially on their own property.

After the third weekend of racing, Cooper declared the venue an “imminent hazard,” and the DHHS issued an order declaring the track an “acute threat to North Carolinians, which must not continue.”

Jason Turner, reached by phone, did not want to comment on the decision.

“I’ve got no comment,” he said. “We’re working on some things internally right now, so that’s about it.”

Turner said there’s a chance Ace Speedway would post something on its Facebook page over the next few days. That’s how Turner has been keeping fans updated throughout the last few weeks.

Lawyers for both sides say about 2,500 people attended the first race of the season at Ace Speedway on May 23, the weekend when Phase Two guidelines took effect, and around 2,000 attended the next two races.

Lambeth wrote in his statement that he has empathy for the speedway owners and other business owners in the state.

“I have studied all the evidence presented by both written testimony and oral testimony,” Lambeth said. “The court concludes that the correct legal ruling in this case is to grant the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction.”

Phase Two also will now require face masks to be worn by anyone out in the public.

DHHS on Wednesday reported 1,721 new cases statewide, the second-highest daily total since the pandemic began in mid-March, and 906 hospitalizations, just nine off the single-day high established one day earlier.

Chuck Wall, a veteran driver at Ace Speedway who lives in Midway, said he wasn’t surprised with the ruling.

“I didn’t think they would be able to open back up,” said Wall, who competed all three weekends. “I think the governor is proving a point now because I know several other tracks in the state are still open. It’s just unfortunate where we are right now.”

Randy Butner, a veteran driver from Pfafftown, has raced at Ace Speedway for about 10 years. He also races at Bowman Gray Stadium, which has been closed this season.

“I’m not surprised, but I think we need a new governor,” Butner said. “It’s disappointing not only with the situation at Ace Speedway but everything that’s gone on here lately.”

One of Kitchen’s arguments in the hearing was there is no COVID-19 emergency in North Carolina.

“There’s no question COVID is a bad germ, and there’s no question there’s a pandemic worldwide,” Kitchen said. “No one is going to argue what we have going on isn’t serious. But is it serious now? I would submit to the court it is no longer an emergency.”

High Point man pleads guilty to sexually assaulting 17-year-old boy who has Down syndrome

A former IFB Solutions employee pleaded guilty Wednesday in Forsyth Superior Court to sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy who has Down syndrome.

The plea came on the same day that a lawsuit over how IFB Solutions handled the incident was resolved in another courtroom. IFB Solutions is the nation’s largest employer of individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

John Dorsey Caldwell, 52, of High Point pleaded guilty to two felony counts of crimes against nature and two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery.

Presiding Judge Todd Burke said that because of Caldwell’s lack of a prior felony criminal record and the type of charges in this case he isn’t eligible for an active prison sentence.

Instead, Burke consolidated the charges and gave Caldwell a total suspended sentence of 10 months to 30 months, put him on supervised probation for three years and ordered him to have no contact with the boy. He also has to register as a sex offender.

Caldwell, who had to be evaluated to see if he was capable to proceed in the case, had some trouble answering Burke’s questions from a plea transcript, and there was brief consideration of not holding the plea hearing. But Caldwell consulted with his attorney, and he was able to answer Burke’s questions.

According to Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster, Caldwell sexually assaulted the boy numerous times in a bathroom at IFB Solutions, where Caldwell had worked for 13 years. The 17-year-old, who is also autistic, told investigators that Caldwell touched his penis and other parts of his body. The boy also told investigators that he didn’t tell anyone because Caldwell told him not to and that he was scared of Caldwell. Foster said Caldwell also had been heard at IFB Solutions, saying that he had a new girlfriend, referring to the boy.

Caldwell initially denied the allegations but later admitted that he had performed sexual acts on the boy.

The boy’s mother didn’t find out about the abuse until months later when she was shopping and a former IFB Solutions employee told her, believing she already knew. Foster said the mother contacted IFB Solutions, which did not provide her with any information. She then contacted Family Services, which led ultimately to the Winston-Salem police investigating.

The lawsuit alleged that IFB Solutions covered up the allegations of sexual abuse and failed to notify the boy’s parents, the school system or the Winston-Salem Police Department. The lawsuit contended that the agency was more concerned about keeping a federal contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs than with the boy’s welfare.

IFB Solutions denied the allegations in court papers.

The lawsuit also alleged IFB Solutions failed to do a proper background check on Caldwell, missing the fact that he had been charged with second-degree sex offense in 1995 in Guilford County. Caldwell eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of assault on a female in that case.

IFB Solutions also did not fire Caldwell after several allegations of misconduct, including that he had forced other adult employees to perform sexual acts with him and that he wore an inappropriate shirt at work.

An amended complaint alleged the boy went to IFB Solutions’ human-resources department with concerns about Caldwell’s conduct and that the agency failed to do anything. IFB Solutions officials have said they never knew about the sex-abuse allegations until after they were served with the lawsuit. At a November hearing, an attorney for IFB Solutions said Caldwell was fired because he had made inappropriate comments to the boy.

After he was fired from IFB Solutions, he was hired at Greensboro-based Industries of the Blind, a separate organization, a year later. The Greensboro agency said it followed the law in hiring Caldwell, who Schmitdz has since been fired.

Ken Tisdale, Caldwell’s attorney, said his client has had certain intellectual deficiencies that limited his impulses and may have contributed to the abuse.

In a separate hearing Wednesday, Judge Eric Morgan of Forsyth Superior Court approved a confidential settlement agreement in the lawsuit, which will now be dismissed voluntarily with prejudice. That means the lawsuit cannot be refiled.

Andrew Fitzgerald, who represented the boy’s family in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the criminal matters Wednesday.

Joseph Schmitdz, who was the boy’s guardian ad litem, said at the hearing that the boy is a fantastic person and is getting ready to attend one more year of high school. He is also volunteering, he said.

“If you met him, you’d immediately fall in love with him,” Schmitdz said.