Gaither says 'errors in judgment' cost him DA bid

cwootson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 15, 2014 

District Attorney Jay Gaither said his re-election lost Tuesday shows that the public has lost faith on him, which he blamed on his own “errors in judgment.”

David Learner, 57, a Morganton lawyer and former assistant district attorney, unseated Gaither, a three-time incumbent, in the Republican primary runoff. His victory came amid accusations that Gaither sexually harassed one of his prosecutors.

The district is heavily Republican and includes Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties. Learner had 61.81 percent of the vote in unofficial results Tuesday, with all precincts reporting.

Gaither promised Lerner “the most seamless and cooperative transition that we could ever put together,” and took the blame for his defeat.

“I think the results of the first primary are indicative of the lack of confidence the public had in me at the time,” Gaither said Wednesday.

“It's not enough that you do a good job ... You're expected to be the conscience of the community. There were several errors in judgment that affected people's opinion of my ability to use good judgment.”

One of them, he said, involved the Zahra Baker case, which drew Gaither national attention but saddled him with local criticism that spilled over into the election. The 10-year-old was found murdered and dismembered in 2010.

He was widely criticized for a plea bargain in which Zahra's mother Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Critics say she deserved far more.

“There is no doubt that was a major negative for me and I regret that tremendously,” he said. “Because the prosecution of Elisa Baker is regarded nationally as a textbook prosecution.”

Learner used Gaither’s handling of the case throughout his campaign, calling it an example of Gaither's “soft” plea bargains. He agreed it played a role in the runoff.

“People are very, very frustrated with the lenient plea bargains that have gone on,” he said Wednesday. “They've become very aware of that with the handling of the Zahra Baker case.”

In late June, Whitney Nicole Shaffer, a former employee of Gaither’s, filed a federal complaint alleging Gaither had rubbed her thigh while the pair rode in a car together. She claims Gaither texted her: “I’ve laid hands on you and love the feel of your body.”

The suit says Shaffer resigned after the workplace became intolerable because of Gaither’s “constant sexual harassment” and her “fear of violence.”

Gaither has said the allegations aren’t true. He said the claims were politically motivated.

Gaither, meanwhile, has called Learner “a confidence man” who used his credibility as a lawyer to recruit people to Hi-Tech Marketing, a multilevel sales company. It was shut down last year by the Federal Trade Commission, which called it a pyramid scheme.

Learner says the company “appeared to be legitimate” when he got involved five years ago. His involvement, he says, lasted no more than eight months.

Rushing reclaims seat on Union board

Stony Rushing beat Tracy Kuehler for a seat on the Union County Board of Commissioners.

With all 52 precincts reporting, Rushing had 59.16 percent of the vote in the Republican primary runoff. Both Rushing and Kuehler are former county commissioners.

The face-off was needed because in May neither candidate won enough votes in the primary election to avoid a runoff. In that race, nine people had sought three seats on the board.

The five-member, all Republican board will remain in Republican hands. No Democrats ran for the office.

Mixson wins Iredell clerk seat

Incumbent Jim Mixson defeated challenger Ron “Duck” Wyatt in Tuesday’s Republican second primary for Iredell County Clerk of Superior Court, according to unofficial returns.

Mixson received 59.34 percent of the vote to Wyatt’s 40.66 percent, according to unofficial returns with all precincts reporting.

No Democrat is on the November general election ballot, so Mixson is virtually assured re-election.

Berger loses bid for District 6 seat

Elsewhere in the state, Phil Berger Jr., son of N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, was beaten in the 6th Congressional District Republican primary runoff by Mark Walker.

With all 15 precincts reporting in Rockingham County, Walker had 52.99 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results.

Walker had called for an investigation into a super PAC that supported Berger, claiming that Phil Berger was using his position to attract contributions to the PAC, which he claimed was set up just for the candidate’s benefit, a violation of federal law. Staff writers Adam Bell and Joe Marusak contributed.

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