(To close out the year, we’re counting off five of our most-read stories from 2017. While many of our clicks this year came on stories of tragedy, we’ve left those pieces off this list out of respect for the families. Here’s number three. Read number four here. Check back each day between now and December 30 for each new installment.)
The Rant isn’t primarily political – the Rant isn’t primarily anything, other than local – but we’ve never shied away from writing about politics, either. Politics may even have been one of the determining characteristics in this site’s founding. Once we got rolling, though, our scope quickly broadened. And nobody’s been happier about that than us. We like telling lots of kinds of stories.
Regardless of all that, we thought it was important to inform the public when we learned in April that Republican Lee County Board of Education member Sherry Lynn Womack had been arrested in 2011 – five years before her election to the board – on a charge of breaking and entering in Buncombe County.
And the public responded, Womack supporters and detractors alike – after thousands of page views, this site was praised as a “valuable source of local information” and also referred to as “fake news.”
The Sanford Herald followed our story with some excellent reporting (subscription required) in which Womack claimed the disclosure of the charges was both an attempt to defame her, and illegal. Through a lawyer, she threatened “civil and criminal penalties for all who are trafficking (the report).” We learned a month later that Womack or someone using her name had apparently asked Google to remove our coverage and the Herald’s from its search index (it has not as of this writing). With that development, the Rant reached a national audience when the story was featured on the libertarian-leaning Volokh Conspiracy blog.
Womack and her husband, Lee GOP chairman and former County Commissioner Jim Womack, claimed that the charges resulted from a misunderstanding and were eventually dismissed – we have no reason not to believe them – and that they had been expunged by a judge’s order, and the person requesting Google de-annex our stories from their searches provided what appears to be a copy of the judge’s expunction order. In the months since our stories, sources have told the Rant that the order is real, but that it failed to list any governmental agencies ordered to destroy the arrest record – explaining how the Rant was able to obtain it via a request for public information. It’s unclear if the order has been subsequently updated and the relevant records have been destroyed.
In the end, this story was about disclosure and transparency – about providing insight into the behavior or public figures. Womack has continued her term on the school board, and Jim – whom the arrest report indicated attempted to use his position (he was a Lee County commissioner at the time) to make the warrant go away – remains active in local and state politics (in addition to leading the local GOP, he’s also the chairman of North Carolina’s Oil and Gas Commission).
And despite the “fake news” label, it’s a story we stand by.
Read the next installment of this series here.