Last edited: February 14, 2005

Sheriff’s Apology Won’t Do, Gay Rights Advocates Say

Charlotte Observer, September 6, 1997
P. O. Box 2138, Charlotte, NC 28233
Fax 704-358-5022

By Foon Rhee Staff Writer

Gay advocates posed a simple question Friday about Mitchell County Sheriff Vernon Bishop:

Why does he get to keep his job when the high school football coach he hounded lost his?

Bishop admitted taping conversations of the coach he thought was homosexual to investigate whether the coach was conspiring to commit illegal sex acts.

The sheriff gave the tape to school officials, who called in the coach. The coach later resigned, Bishop dropped his investigation and no charges were ever filed.

To stay in office, Bishop apologized in court Thursday and agreed to forfeit a half-month’s pay, or about $1,600. That settlement ended a bid by the local district attorney to remove him from office for abusing his power.

But it didn’t end the controversy.

"How could someone who’s supposed to uphold the law break it and keep his job?" asked Mark Johnson, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington.

District Attorney Tom Rusher called the settlement an "appropriate resolution."

A final verdict, he said, is up to voters, who decide whether to put Bishop back in office next year.

"We have forced this matter to be inspected in the light of day," Rusher said Friday. "The people of Mitchell County are fully aware of the events that happened."

The coach, who left his job in 1995 but still lives and works in Mitchell County, wouldn’t talk Friday about what happened to him. "I’d rather just not make any comment at all right now," he said.

Rusher said a "terrible tragedy" has happened to a man with a distinguished career. "It’s absurd for anyone to even insinuate that the coach committed any illegal act," he said.

Though the coach’s name hasn’t been publicized, it’s common knowledge in the sparsely populated county in the Western North Carolina mountains. "The most devastating publicity is word of mouth," Rusher said. He said one reason he agreed to the settlement is that the coach didn’t want him to pursue the case for fear of more publicity.

Once word got out and given his job, the coach had no choice but to resign -- pointing out the need for statewide job protections for homosexuals, said M.K. Cullen, executive director of the N.C. Pride PAC for Gay and Lesbian Equality.

"At that point, I’d almost be fearful for his physical safety," Cullen said.

The sheriff’s actions only perpetuate myths about homosexuals, said Charlotte Goedsche, a member of the Southern Appalachian Lesbian and Gay Alliance.

"People assume all gay persons are sexually active and promiscuous and that gay men . . . are interested in boys," she said. "It’s ridiculous. If it had been a male coach of a girls’ team, they would not have dreamed of taping his phone calls."

During the three-day hearing this week in Mitchell Superior Court, Bishop said he asked his deputies in 1995 to record the coach’s conversations they picked up on their scanners. An SBI agent testified that Bishop lied to agents by telling them that someone anonymously left on his desk the tape of one of the coach’s conversations.

"I have exercised poor judgment in this matter and I apologize," Bishop told the court. He said later that he acted "out of my concern for the kids of Mitchell County." He declined to comment Friday.

Bishop, a Republican, was appointed in 1992, elected in 1994 and is seeking another four-year term next year. He said he’s confident he’ll win.

"I feel like he acted in what he felt was the best interest of the county," said Mitchell GOP Chairman David Hall. "Still, it was a violation of the law. It’s good to get it settled and get it behind us."

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