State v. Bradsher, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Oct. 6, 2020)

The defendant, the former District Attorney for Person and Caldwell Counties, was tried for obtaining property by false pretenses, conspiracy to obtain property by false pretenses, aiding and abetting obtaining property by false pretenses, three counts of obstruction of justice, and failure to discharge the duties of his office. The jury acquitted on one count of felony obstruction and the conspiracy count but convicted on the remaining charges (with the exception that the jury returned a verdict of guilty of misdemeanor obstruction on one of the remaining felony obstruction counts). The trial court subsequently arrested judgment on the aiding and abetting obtaining property conviction. The charges stemmed from a scheme whereby the defendant and another elected District Attorney hired each other’s wives to work in each other’s offices. Under this arrangement, both wives were wrongfully paid for working hours that they had not actually worked.

(1) There was insufficient evidence to support the conviction for obtaining property by false pretenses. The State alleged that the defendant acted in concert with the employee who improperly submitted work hours. Acting in concert requires the actual or constructive presence of the defendant at the scene of the crime. “A person is constructively present during the commission of a crime if he is close enough to provide assistance if needed and to encourage the actual execution of the crime.” Slip op. at 15 (citation omitted). Although the employee at issue worked for the defendant, she was allowed to work at her husband’s office in another district. The defendant was therefore not physically present when the fraud of reporting unworked hours occurred. The State argued that the defendant was constructively present, pointing out that the fraudulent hours were approved by a supervisor at the defendant’s direction. The court rejected this argument, noting that the approval of hours occurred at a much later time than when the hours were submitted. While “actual distance is not determinative, . . . the accused must be near enough to render assistance if need be and to encourage the actual perpetration of the crime.” Id. at 19 (citation omitted). Here, the defendant was not in the same county as the employee who submitted the fraudulent hours at the time they were submitted. The fact that the employee could have called the defendant for help with the crime at the time was not enough to satisfy the constructive presence element. “To hold the theory of acting in concert would be satisfied merely where ‘remote assistance’ is possible would broadly expand the universe of criminal conduct under this theory.” Id. at 22. Thus, the defendant’s conviction for acting in concert to obtain property by false pretenses was vacated for insufficient evidence [although the trial court was instructed on remand to reinstate the judgment previously arrested for aiding and abetting obtaining property].

(2) There was also insufficient evidence of felony obstruction of justice. That offense requires the State to prove that the defendant actually impeded the administration of justice. The indictment alleged that the defendant made false statements to an SBI investigator concerning the employee. One of the defendant’s statements at issue was “at most misleading, and not false,” as it was a misrepresentation by omission and not affirmatively a false statement as the indictment charged. There was sufficient evidence that another of the defendant’s statements to the investigator was false, but there was no evidence that this statement actually obstructed the course of the investigation. The defendant responded truthfully to some of the investigator’s questions about the employee, which actually facilitated the investigation. The defendant was never directly asked whether the employee was in fact performing work for the defendant. “To support a conviction for obstruction of justice, the State must establish substantial evidence for every element of the crime, including that the act in question ‘obstructed justice[.]’” Id. at 27 (citation omitted). The motion to dismiss for felony obstruction of justice therefore should have been granted, and that conviction was vacated. 

(3) The defendant argued that the trial court improperly excluded testimony regarding an email sent by an assistant to the Administrative Office of the Courts at the defendant’s direction. At trial, the defendant argued that the email fell within the business records exception to the prohibition on hearsay, that the email was simply not hearsay, and that the State opened the door to the admission of the email through its questions of the witness. On appeal, the defendant argued that the email should have been admitted because it was a directive to his employee, pointing to cases holding that commands are not hearsay because they are not offered for the truth of the matter (rather, they are offered to show that the command was given). It was not apparent from context that the defendant was arguing for the email’s admission as a command, and the parties and trial court did not address that argument. Since this argument was not made at the trial level, it was not preserved and was waived on appeal.

(4) The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the specific misrepresentations for the obtaining property by false pretenses offenses. “[A] jury instruction that is not specific to the misrepresentation in the indictment is acceptable so long as the court finds ‘no variance between the indictment, the proof presented at trial, and the instructions to the jury.’” Id. at 34 (citation omitted). The defendant argued that the evidence showed alternative false representations that the jury could have improperly relied on in rending its verdict of guilty for the two offenses. Reviewing the evidence, the court rejected this argument. “We hold the trial court did not err, nor plainly err, in failing to give an instruction about the misrepresentation alleged in the indictment.” Id. at 37.