'Extremely alarming.' Emails shed light on Durham city leaders' conversations over extortion claims

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Thursday, April 6, 2023
Emails: Durham city leaders' conversations around extortion claims
The ABC11 I-Team obtained over a hundred pages of emails between Durham city council members and city leaders after extortion allegations surfaced.

The ABC11 I-Team obtained over a hundred pages of emails sent between Durham city councilmembers and city leaders after extortion allegations surfaced. The emails reveal the steps and conversations leaders took between March 13 and March 24.

City councilmember Monique Holsey-Hyman is at the center of the allegations that involve trading support for a development project in exchange for campaign donations.

In the first email from March 13, Durham city attorney Kimberly Rehberg alerted the city council that a real estate developer had called the planning department with the alleged complaint.

Rehberg called the allegation "extremely alarming" and wrote the council should be concerned about the threats to the "integrity of its work and to public confidence."

Ultimately, in the initial emails, Rehberg said it is up to the council to decide the next steps but suggests urgency in conducting an investigation.

The following emails show Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal getting in touch with faculty from the UNC School of Government officials for advice on the next steps.

Faculty layout options for the city council that range from doing nothing, involving law enforcement, voting to censure the member and undertaking an investigation. The emails also include responses from city council members. Councilmember Jillian Johnson said she was "deeply concerned" and "disappointed."

March 15: "This behavior casts doubts on the integrity of our entire council and our fairness in making land use decisions, which is perhaps the most impactful piece of our work outside of the annual budget process," Johnson wrote two days after the initial email.

On March 19 Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton brought to light that he was being accused of organizing and directing the allegations against Holsey-Hyman.

"In my years of public service, I have never experienced a more egregious attack on my character," Middleton wrote. He goes on to call the conspiracy "a slanderous lie and a pathetic attempt to deflect."

A week after the extortion allegations surfaced, emails show council members meeting in small groups and individually with other city attorneys. The council decided to involve law enforcement in the extortion allegations directed at Holsey-Hyman.

Other allegations surrounding Holsey-Hyman surface that allegedly involve her asking city employees to assist with her campaign on city time and with city resources. Holsey-Hyman later said on two occasions she had asked for information from a city staff member about campaign resources and that both of the times were approved by human resources.

Throughout the two weeks the city attorney advises the council in emails to be "discreet and limit public comments to the greatest extent possible consistent with reasonable transparency," Rehberg wrote.

Only one email is from Holsey-Hyman sent on Wednesday, March 22.

"I would like an opportunity to meet with and to provide my statement to the council members before action is taken. None of my colleagues have ever asked me about what happened in both alleged incidents," Hosley-Hyman wrote.

The next day Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal made the allegations public during a work session.

Holsey-Hyman has denied any wrongdoing and said she will not step down. The councilwoman was elected in 2022.

"I will continue to be a dedicated leader, to serve with transparency and integrity for the Durham residents," Hosley-Hyman said during the meeting on March 23.

Emails show a day later, a local FBI agent reached out to city leaders to request information surrounding the allegations as he believed they may constitute federal crimes. O'Neal forwarded the agent information and agreed to meet with him.

On April 3, Durham City Council decided not take a vote to censure Hosley-Hyman related to city staff allegations. Instead, council members are pushing for the city to move beyond the allegation and let the investigation play out.

"Let us move on, let us get back to work to bind up the wounds of our city," Middleton said during the April 3 meeting.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is still looking into the extortion allegations.

The allegations over the past month have led to contention within the council, including reports of near brawls between some members. Councilmember Leonardo Williams denied any physical altercations between council members but did state there was a passionate outburst.

Williams wants the council to heal and is hopeful they can move forward.

O'Neal and Holsey-Hyman told the I-Team they had no comment on the matter.


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