Barring a court appeal, Chatham voters will have a chance to elect car wash magnate Bunkey Morgan in the County Commissioners race later this year, since the local elections board dismissed a challenge by Pittsboro resident Nancy Brown, who alleged Morgan doesn't live in the district he is running to represent.
"We've heard Mr. Morgan's testimony that it's his intent to live there and that's his domicile," said Republican elections board member Roger Gerber, who led the board's unanimous support of Morgan.
In testimony and documents, Morgan painted a self-portrait as a conservative who changed his address to District 4 and his party affiliation to Democrat to challenge incumbent Commissioner Gary Phillips.
Under oath, the wealthy Morgan told the board he moved from his 9-year-old brick mansion on a family compound near Jordan Lake in January, taking up residence in a 50-year-old two-bedroom bungalow at 2134 Silk Hope-Lindley Mill Road. He said he lives there now with a young man who helps around the 30-acre property and his girlfriend, "a housekeeper." They sleep in one bedroom and he sleeps in the other, he said.
"When I'm in town, I have no knowledge of missing one day at my house on Silk Hope-Lindley Mill Road," Morgan said. His wife of nearly 40 years, Judith, chooses to continue living at the couple's District 1 house near Apex, in the eastern end of Chatham County, he told the board.
"When I changed my address, I began abandoning my prior residence," Morgan said, referring to one of the legal criteria for establishing residency. "I did not abandon my wife, or my responsibilities to my wife."
Those duties apparently include yard work and fetching the newspaper. When Elections Director Dawn Stumpf visited the Morgans' Apex house on May 7--while doing a field investigation on the board's behalf--she found Bunkey Morgan at home there. He said he'd come to mow the lawn for his wife.
He was apparently there the previous week, as well. Brown showed a videotape dated May 2 that depicted Morgan driving down his long driveway at 1970 Martha Chapel Road to retrieve his newspaper at 7:12 a.m.
Still, Morgan insists the tiny Silk Hope house is his primary residence. As evidence, he provided receipts for gasoline he bought at the nearby convenience store--108 gallons of unleaded in the 17 days directly following the elections board's preliminary hearing on April 16.
The board had subpoenaed records like tax forms, bank account information, utility bills and other paperwork. Morgan submitted electric bills showing he opened an account at the Silk Hope house on Jan. 17. His tax records, however, showed an address of 102 Baines Court in Cary, the corporate office of Bunkey's Car Wash. Morgan said all his personal and business accounting is handled through that address, and the only bank account in his name is his campaign account.
Another key piece of paperwork that surfaced at the May 8 hearing was a lease Morgan says proves he's renting the house. At a preliminary hearing April 16, Morgan had insisted he didn't have or need a written lease with the owner of the house, his lifelong friend Bobby Stott. Stott has owned the house since December, when he and his wife bought it from Morgan's son's company. RAS Rental--represented by Bunkey Morgan--had purchased the house in September, owning it for three months before selling to Stott, an aide to U.S. Rep. David Price at the time. But on May 8, Morgan produced a five-year lease between himself and RAS Rental, dated Jan. 2, 2002. Board members asked why his lease is with his son's company, which doesn't own the house--rather than Stott, who does. Morgan replied that the Stotts are leasing the house to RAS Rental, which in turn is leasing it to him.
After seeing and hearing all the evidence presented by Brown, including the videotape filmed at Morgan's District 1 house, the elections board ruled that Morgan was qualified to run in District 4.
"I wasn't persuaded that he doesn't live there," said board member Mary Harris, one of two Democrats.
The decision cleared the way for Morgan to fulfill a 2-year-old vow, said Morgan supporter Andy Wilkie, a Republican Party leader who lost his District 2 bid to Democrat Margaret Pollard the same night Democrat Bob Atwater beat Morgan by 1,940 votes.
"Two years ago, in this room, he told me he was moving to District 4 and run against Gary Phillips," Wilkie told the elections board, recalling a conversation the night of the 2000 general election. "If you knew Mr. Morgan like I do, you'd know he wouldn't go to the trouble of doing this without establishing residency."
Chatham Republican Party leaders are firmly behind Morgan in a race that is stirring up accusations of fraud on both sides. In response to the media attention given to Morgan's eligibility, Chatham Republicans are publicly and privately calling Phillips' resume and residency into question.
"We have some suspicions that Mr. Phillips has not done some of the things he says he's done," says Martie Hipple, who testified on Morgan's behalf at the elections board hearing. Hipple, a Republican who lost to Phillips in 1998 and one of the leaders of the conservative group FACT (Financial Accountability for Chatham Taxpayers), recently wrote to UNC's Morehead Foundation questioning whether Phillips actually was a Morehead Scholar, a prestigious program for high-achieving high school students who attend UNC. (He was.)
Phillips has also recently changed his address, leaving Morgan's supporters crying foul about criticism of their candidate's move from District 1 to District 4.
Both of Phillips' former and current addresses, however, are in the district he represents. Phillips says he moved out of his former house on Castle Rock Road at the end of February because he and his wife separated. He has changed his address with the elections board to 97 Box Turtle Lane, where he says he is building a new house that will be completed this summer. In the meantime, Phillips says he is staying with friends on Irvin Lindley Road, within walking distance of his new house site--and also in District 4.
"Nobody really believes Bunkey intends to live in Silk Hope," Phillips says. "And nobody really believes I intend to leave there."