On the day before voters were deciding to send Howard County Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane back to office for a third term, a Mount Airy woman who supported his challenger filed the complaint that prompted a District Court commissioner to issue a summons charging Macfarlane with giving nearly 20 people unauthorized access to the county courthouse on a Sunday.
Macfarlane, 35, a Democrat, was charged with a misdemeanor and ordered to appear in court Jan. 8, according to the Nov. 5 statement of charges.
Macfarlane said he had not received a copy of the charges as of last week and declined to comment.
He had earlier called the allegations politically motivated.
A group was found at the inside entrance of the courthouse by a sheriff’s deputy making a regular check on Sunday, Sept. 30, during non-business hours, according to a statement from Sheriff Bill McMahon.
The group entered the building with Macfarlane’s access key card, according to McMahon.
Several social media sites carried comments about the matter in the days before the November election and it was not clear who was in the group and what they were doing.
Macfarlane was not with the group, the sheriff said.
On Oct. 27, state Sen. Gail Bates mailed a letter to Howard County Circuit Court Administrative Judge William V. Tucker expressing her concern after being approached by a constituent.
Bates, a Republican who represents parts of Howard and Carroll counties, wrote the individuals could have gained access to court files and other sensitive materials and tampered with them. Bates lost her re-election bid to Democrat Katie Fry Hester.
Tucker responded to Bates with a letted dated Nov. 8, writing “I appreciate your concern and echo those same concerns,” according to the letter.
Tucker has investigated the matter and considers it closed, according to the letter. Tucker did not further discuss the Sept. 30 incident in his letter.
As the administrative judge, Tucker is “ultimately responsible for courthouse security,” but the sheriff’s office is primarily responsible for providing courthouse security, according to the letter.
Until a day after the Nov. 6 election, when Macfarlane defeated Republican challenger Shawn Conley by 43,000 votes, a 2-to1 margin, it was not clear who had filed the complaint against Macfarlane. The allegations were reviewed by Kenneth Reese, an alternate District Court commissioner, who ordered Marfarlane to appear in court in January.
Anyone can submit “an application for statement of charges,” also referred to as a criminal complaint “if you believe that someone has committed a crime against you or a minor in your custody,” according to the state’s courts website. District Court commissioners review criminal complaints, determine if there is probable cause to bring charges and if so, issue a charging document.
The complaint was submitted by Melissa Gruner, of Mount Airy, who said “people could be in danger of identity theft,” as the individuals could have taken courthouse records.
Gruner said she filed the complaint after being told of the incident by several people, emailing McMahon for confirmation and seeing a copy of Bates’s letter.
Macfarlane “has not even explained himself or taken accountability for his actions … our elected officials should be held to a higher standard,” Gruner said.
Gruner, who publicly endorsed Conley on his campaign website, was not asked by him to file the complaint, Conley said.
“I did not instruct her to do it ... not how we ran our campaign,” Conley said. “We were trusting the media to get the information out and they let us down. [This is] egregious in my humble opinion.”
The Howard County prosecutor’s office reviews all citizen criminal complaints and evaluates the case to determine whether it should go to trial, according to the office’s website.
Howard assistant state’s attorneys were not available for comment and the office’s spokesman declined to comment.
The charge of providing loaning a government identification to another individual carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $500 fine.
Story has been updated to reflect additional information from Tucker’s Nov. 8 letter.