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Judge rules Elizabeth Craver will remain Pender County's clerk of court

A crowd of celebrating people, mostly white adults, gather around two women. The women -- one a middle-aged other, the other her adult daughter -- are wearing black suits, and hugging across the barrier in a courtroom and crying.
Nikolai Mather
Elizabeth Craver and her mother reacting to the news that she'll remain Pender County Clerk of Court.

Elizabeth Craver has been suspended from her job as Pender County Clerk of Court since her criminal indictment in February. Today, a judge has decided to keep her in office.

Since Wednesday morning, Elizabeth Craver has been embroiled in a legal battle over whether or not she will keep her seat as Pender County's clerk of courts — one of the top elected positions in the county. Today, Judge Kent Harrell handed down his decision: Craver will remain.

The decision follows three days of testimony from county employees, State Bureau of Investigation agents, and Craver herself. Judge Harrell presented his judgment within an hour of hearing closing arguments.

In February, a jury indicted Craver on four criminal charges following an extensive investigation into her activities by the SBI. That same month, Judge Harrell suspended her from her duties as clerk of court and called for a special hearing to determine whether she should be permanently barred.

District attorney Ben David was listed as a possible witness in the case, so the court appointed attorney C. Boyd Sturges to prosecute Craver in his stead. Sturges sought to prove that the clerk caused "disrepute" to Pender County's judicial branch.

"Are you doing something that's gonna smell funny? And are you doing it willfully or blindly?" he said during closing arguments. "That is gonna cause this community to not trust the judiciary."

Craver faced a number of allegations, including: purchasing personal items using county money, taking chairs from the courthouse for personal use, allowing employees to campaign for her while on the clock (or while improperly using state-issued community service hours), pressuring employees to campaign for her, using scare tactics against employees who cooperated with the SBI's investigation, and failing to properly correct a clerical error on an owelty (a court process to divide the value of a property equitably).

Craver's attorney Ed West argued that Craver's misconduct, where it existed, was not egregious enough to warrant removal from office.

"Something here," he said during his closing argument, "feels way out of proportion."

The judge presented the rationale for his decision at the end of the hearing. Harrell agreed that Craver engaged in some misconduct. He specifically cited an incident in 2019, where Craver told an employee to leave work under false pretenses to help her go dress shopping in Wilmington, as an example. He also pointed out that Craver had a duty to both know state policy about work hours and ensure her employees followed it – so allowing employees to list campaign hours as "community service" would qualify as willful misconduct.

But ultimately, he said these activities were not serious enough to merit removal.

Craver's legal battles are far from over. This special proceeding was solely to determine whether she should remain clerk of court. She is also facing those criminal indictments. But West will also be representing her during those trials as well.

"She intends to vigorously fight the charges against her," he told WHQR following today's hearing.

But for now, her job is safe. West told WHQR that Craver will return to work immediately.

"She's ready to get back to work for the citizens of Pender County."

Editor's note: Previous reporting said Elizabeth Craver faced three criminal charges. She is facing four.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.