Just as Bob Dylan said, "We live in a political world."
Dylan's 1989 lyrics rang true again following the December 12 indictment of former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick and three other employees of the office. A grand jury brought charges against Riddick including embezzlement of more than $100,000 by a public official—a class C felony.
The indictments stated that she converted money to her own use that belonged to the office she formerly headed. A series of six indictments charged Riddick with taking $926,615 from the office between 2010 and 2017.
Riddick, a Republican first elected in 1996 and reelected most recently in 2016, remains innocent under the law, but that presumption didn't still the voices of politics.
"While not completely unexpected the news about FORMER Wake Register of Deeds Laura Riddick is heartbreaking," tweeted Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party. "Many @WakeCountyGOP people worked to elect her and fully trusted her. Simply a tragedy."
The all-caps "former" may speak to the GOP's desire to draw lines between the Riddick awaiting trial and Riddick the popular public official elected six times under the Republican banner.
Perry Woods, a Democratic political strategist, says Republicans would have pounced if a Democrat had been accused of similar charges.
"They would certainly make political hay out of it," Woods says. "But the truth is, it's a very tragic situation all around."
With no prior record, Riddick faces a sentence of up to seven years per count, officials say.
"Clearly these indictments today come at the end of a lengthy, detailed investigation, but it's just the beginning of a long court process," says District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. "We are intent on seeing it through so that justice can be served."
Riddick had long enjoyed the status of a Republican whom many mainstream Democrats could accept. Still, in recent years, her donations to candidates often went to conservatives, including Paul Stam, Tony Gurley, Marilyn Avila, Tamara Barringer, Chad Barefoot, and Paul Coble in 2012 alone.
State Republicans announced they would turn over to the Wake County manager $383 that Riddick had donated to the party since 2003, part of more than $23,000 she gave to candidates and state and local party organizations.
Under state law, Wake County Republicans get to maintain control of the Register of Deeds post through the election of 2020. After Riddick stepped down—near the time the investigation of her office was announced, but also because of recurring episodes of bad health—the Wake County Republican Party met behind closed doors to appoint former Wake County District Court Judge Charles Gilliam to the post.
Woods argues that Gilliam shouldn't be allowed to hold the post that long.
"We wouldn't have a county commission seat stay open for three years," Woods says. "It would be in the public interest if there were a special election for the post."
Given the way Wake County is trending, it's likely that a Democrat would win that post were such an election to happen.
As the INDY previously reported, Wake County officials had not performed a detailed audit of the Register of Deeds office in recent years. According to longstanding practice, elected officials such as the county sheriff and register of deeds had not been subject to the same scrutiny as other departments—scrutiny that may have headed off any fraud long before now. According to a claim the county submitted to its insurance company, the Register of Deeds office lost more than $2.3 million in cash, with money walking out the door nearly every day for nearly a decade.
Riddick has not been available for comment since her retirement.