E-mail suggests League might have swayed D.A. on Britt

By on December 21, 2015

District Attorney Frank Parrish died in 2013.

The same Oct. 21, 2011 e-mail that revealed leaks of information from an ostensibly independent investigation into the management practices of Kill Devil Hills Police Chief Gary Britt also suggests a different scenario of why then-District Attorney Frank Parrish reversed his decision to file a petition seeking Britt’s removal.

Parrish, now deceased, was a pivotal player in actions against Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett two years ago by the Judicial Standards Commission. An affidavit he filed at that time also has become germane in action now being taken by the North Carolina State Bar against Tillett.

Part of Parrish’s role in the Britt affair is well known and up to a certain point, includes indisputable facts.

In the spring of 2011, four former and current police officers filed a petition with Tillett that contained complaints against Chief Britt and sought his removal.

A little-known section in the North Carolina code allows for the filing of such a petition with the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge, which in this case was Tillett.

Andy Ennis, who at the time was a KDH officer, learned about this provision in a discussion with a Police Benevolent Association (PBA) representative, an organization that provides legal advice to police officers.

Although state law gives Tillett the power to remove the chief, Tillett did not do so himself. Instead, he turned the petition over to then-District Attorney Frank Parrish for investigation. In addition to Ennis, one other KDH officer filed a petition along with two former officers.

We know Parrish then sent an investigator, George Ryan, to speak with the four officers and report back to him. We also know that in mid-September 2011, Parrish sent a signed letter to Tillett stating the following:

“I am writing to inform you of a matter that is the subject of prospective litigation. Based upon averments from qualified Dare County electors and consistent with the provisions of G.S. 128-16 et. seq., I am drafting and preparing for filing a petition for the removal from office of Gary Britt, Chief of Police in Kill Devil Hills.”

Parrish went as far as to send town officials, including Town Attorney Dan Merrell, and local attorney Dennis Rose, who was representing the four officers filing the petitions, a draft of Parrish’s petition recommending removal.

Then Parrish and his petition disappeared from the radar. In the end, Parrish never filed the document, nor did he take any action against Britt. Instead, he publicly dismissed the officer’s claims of mistreatment and said he was being pressured by Tillet.

What actually caused Parrish to reverse course has remained elusive. But the 2011 e-mail may provide some answers.

After Parrish failed to follow through, local attorney Kathryn Fagan filed petitions to remove Parrish from office on behalf of several of her clients, including Ennis, alleging the D.A. did not carry out his duties to prosecute individuals who had harmed her clients.

Ennis alleged Parrish had assured him that Britt would be removed from office, telling him that the reason he was proceeding slowly was that he “intended to shoot to kill (Britt), not wound him,” the former police officer said.

Superior Court Judge Alma Hinton subsequently threw out the petitions against Parrish, and his attorney, James Maxwell, issued a statement explaining why the D.A. did not remove Britt.

“Parrish considered Ennis’ complaints to be personnel matters outside of his jurisdiction. Still, he looked into them,” Maxwell said.

“In reality, the matters raised by Mr. Ennis were investigated by or on behalf of Mr. Parrish as well as other agencies, and a conclusion was reached that there was no factual or legal basis upon which to file a petition for removal of Chief Britt.”

Parrish also based his decision not to file the petition for Britt’s removal on discussions with the Attorney General’s Office and the Institute of Government, Maxwell concluded.

“Consistent with his legal obligation to not bring frivolous claims to court, Frank Parrish elected to not file such a petition,” Maxwell said.

But that explanation is contradictory to Parrish’s own actions and appears to be out of any logical chronological order.

Parrish wrote a letter to Judge Tillett saying he intended to remove Britt and communicated the same information to town officials. He then drew up a petition for removal and circulated that to Kill Devil Hills and the complainants’ lawyer.

One would expect the order of action to have been for Parrish to send his own investigator to confirm the allegations, then consult with the Attorney General’s office and the Institute of Government before informing the judge and the town of his intentions.

Parrish would never have written his letter to Judge Tillett or drawn up a petition to remove Britt, especially if he had found Ennis’s claims to be “personnel matters outside of his jurisidiction.”

Maxwell also said “investigations by other agencies” influenced Parrish.

The only such investigation was not conducted by an agency, but by the town’s insurer, the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Britt was suspended at the end of 2011 and the League appointed a panel to conduct an investigation of the police chief after the town learned of Parrish’s intentions.

Here is where we learn of another possible explanation of why Parrish never followed through on his decision to remove Britt.

The e-mail, written by the League’s Director of Claims Steven Lee, reveals that both the League attorney representing the town, Dan Hartzog, and Britt’s attorney, Trish Holland, had Parrish’s ear.

Lee tells town officials in the e-mail: ” . . . Dan Hartzog and Trish Holland have both had very long conversations with Frank Parrish.”

Lee reveals that “Frank called Dan Hartzog late one evening at home earlier this week to express his confidence in the investigation” and said he “was not going to file a petition to remove the Chief until the investigation by this investigative team commissioned by the town of Kill Devil Hills has been completed and Dan Hartzog informs him of the results of the team’s investigation.”

By this account, Parrish’s decision on whether to remove Britt ultimately rested on the outcome of the League’s investigation, not on advice from the Attorney General or the Institute of Government.

Parrish would have known that as a liability insurer for the town, the League could not be considered independent or objective in finding any wrongdoing that would strengthen the legal claims of the four former and current police officers.

We also contacted Dennis Rose, the attorney for the officers, and asked him if he had been afforded “very long conversations” with Parrish.

Rose laughed and said, “We had one five-minute talk when Parrish called about a different case and I told him my clients were getting anxious about the lack of action on Britt from his office. Parrish used a few choice cuss words, and the next time I heard from him was when he sent the draft petition to remove Britt.”

At the time all of this occurred, we left e-mails and voice mails with Parrish asking whether his office had been in contact with the League or was being pressured by the League.

We never received a response.

But we now know the League, coordinating with the Town of Kill Devil Hills, was instrumental in filing complaints against Tillett with the Judicial Standards Commission.

We also know the League and Bar were instrumental in filing complaints against former KDH Town Attorney Dan Merrell, who recently faced a North Carolina State Bar complaint related to the entire Britt matter.

By pursuing the petition to remove Britt, it is not hard to imagine that Parrish might have been concerned about risking the same political consequences as Tillet and Merrell.

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