Jackson extends county attorney contract, considers creating staff position

Jay Coward will keep his job as Jackson County attorney — for five more months, at least. 

When a new board of commissioners took over in December, they put out a call for applications to select a new attorney, pulling in a list of eight candidates, including Coward.

Jackson commissioners consider county attorney applicants

Jackson County got plenty of response back when its new board of commissioners put out the word that they were taking applications for the county attorney position. 

Politics aside, county attorney search conducted out of fairness in Jackson

Jackson County commissioners will decide in the coming weeks whether to keep Jay Coward on board as their county attorney.

Commissioners will consider other candidates in January. Coward said he will put his name back in the hat and hopes to stay on board.

Lawyer’s actions aroused suspicion among clients, law enforcement community

An attorney that forged judges’ signatures was caught thanks to the sharp eyes of a law enforcement officer, a fellow attorney and a court clerk who noticed red flags.

But for at least a year, fraudulent driving privileges provided to clients by Attorney John Lewis remained under the radar. The scam began unraveling last fall, leading to a state investigation and culminating with guilty pleas by Lewis in court this week.

The first sign of the fraud arose after one of the drivers sporting a fake document from Lewis was stopped by a law enforcement officer in Swain County. When asked for his license, the driver pulled out the limited driving privileges he’d gotten from Lewis.

“The officer found it was suspicious in nature just by looking at it,” said Grayson Edwards, a State Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the case.

The biggest red flag was that Lewis had signed his own name on the line where a clerk of court is supposed to sign. A signature of Judge Richie Holt also appeared on the document. But the officer was skeptical that Judge Holt would have granted limited driving privileges to this particular driver. So the officer called Holt, who confirmed he’d never signed such a document for that person.

The confused driver called Lewis to find out what was going on. Lewis owned up to the fraud, but asked the driver to keep it under wraps. Lewis told the driver to call the clerk of court and say that he’d gotten the document in the mail.

“After (the driver) hung up the phone, he changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to lie for something that he had not done. So he called the Swain County Clerk’s office back and told them where he’d gotten it,” Edwards recounted in court.

In a second case, a Swain County driver bearing one of Lewis’ forged documents was stopped by a police officer, this time outside the region. The driver whipped out his limited driving privileges, but when the officer pulled the driver’s record, it didn’t show up in the computer and the driver got a ticket.

Confused why his limited driving privileges weren’t valid, the driver called Lewis. Lewis asked for the document back without saying why. The driver got suspicious and photocopied it first.

The driver took the photocopy to another attorney to figure out what was going on, all the while hoping he could get the limited driving privileges back. But the attorney instead referred it to the district attorney’s office.

In yet another bizarre incident, Lewis forged the name of Judge Monica Leslie in a custody case terminating parental rights. No sooner had he filed the fraudulent court order with the Jackson County Clerk of Court than he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk wouldn’t give it back, since a signed order submitted as part of the court record can’t be removed from the file. An agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document.

“At one point he even went around the partition in the clerk’s office with a sticky note that said the order was void and put it on the file,” said Reid Taylor, assistant district attorney. “The clerk had some serious issues with Mr. Lewis and the way he was conducting himself over that document and was raising all kind of red flags.”

Lewis grew up in Jackson County and came from a low-income family, according to Lewis’ attorney. He excelled in basketball, playing at Smoky Mountain High School then at Western Carolina University and finally Mars Hill. From Mars Hill, he went to law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island before returning to Jackson County to practice law. Lewis and his wife live in Glenville.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said Lewis’ actions are puzzling for a person who worked so hard to go to law school.

“To come back home where he grew up and throw it all away? For who? People who weren’t entitled to drive?” Bonfoey asked. “Enabling people who shouldn’t be on the road to drive is appalling to all of us. It is appalling to my office, and it is appalling to all of us as attorneys.”

Investigators did not determine what payment if any Lewis got from his clients in exchange for purportedly landing them limited driving privileges, Bonfoey said.

There may be more people out there who think they have a valid document from Lewis. If you are one of those people, contact the sheriff’s office in your county.

Attorney admits forging judges’ signatures to help clients

A 31-year-old attorney in Jackson County pleaded guilty this week to forging judges’ signatures and creating phony court documents.

John Lewis faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said in court that it was a sad day for the legal profession and criminal justice system.

“We rely on the honesty and integrity of each individual in the system. We rely on the honesty and integrity of each order in the clerk’s office that is purportedly signed by a judge,” Bonfoey said. “To do this is an affront to all of us. His actions damage all of us. There is no way to undo that or make restitution for that.”

Lewis confessed that he was addicted to prescription pain pills for the past 18 months.

“What I did was not out of disrespect or contempt for the law or judges or my colleagues. It was done out of stupidity,” Lewis said. “Most of the time, I was screwed up. This was a daily habit. I would like to apologize to my colleagues and most of all my family.”

The crimes will cost Lewis his law license, but Lewis said his addiction almost cost him something far more important — his marriage.

Lewis was sentenced to 60 days in jail, followed by 10 months of house arrest and five years of probation, plus 100 hours of community service. He pleaded guilty to 12 felony counts spanning forgery and uttering, obstruction of justice and filing an unauthorized court judgment.

Lewis cooperated with investigators from the beginning and pleaded guilty without a bargain. He also checked in to a 28-day substance abuse treatment program. His remorse and cooperation likely helped him land a lighter sentence.

“One thing I was always taught was if you do something stupid you admit it and take responsibility,” Lewis said. “I realize I will never practice law again and I realize I might go to jail today.... if that’s what it takes to show everyone I am sorry for what I did.”

Judge Charles Ginn, who is from the Boone area, presided over the hearing Monday (Jan. 11) and handed down the sentence. Ginn was clearly dismayed by the events.

“It goes without saying I don’t take pleasure in what we are doing here today,” Ginn said. “We have lost the concept of absolute truth, that there is a standard that we all must live by that cannot be altered simply by some set of circumstances we might find ourselves in. The legal system was the last bastion of absolute truth, and it no longer is, unfortunately.”

But Ginn seemed to have sympathy for Lewis’ plight with substance abuse and lectured him extensively about it. From his seat on the bench, Ginn is a frequent eyewitness to the ills of substance abuse. He congratulated Lewis on going through an intensive four-week rehab but warned him it was only the beginning of a long road.

“That’s a drop in the ocean. That’s nothing. Treatment is a lifetime event for you,” Ginn said. “You have to have somebody in your life to kick the backseat of your britches when you don’t do what you are supposed to do.”

Ginn also told Lewis that he needed to find faith in a higher power within the universe to guide him and keep him strong.

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