News: CJ Exclusives

Gunther declared ineligible to sit as state judge, thanks in part to Carolina Journal reporting

The Fuquay Varina house where Tim Gunther is registered to vote. On the porch, shirtless, is Rex Jacobson, the boyfriend of Gunther's daughter. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
The Fuquay Varina house where Tim Gunther is registered to vote. On the porch, shirtless, is Rex Jacobson, the boyfriend of Gunther's daughter. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

Democratic judicial candidate Tim Gunther is disqualified from election after admitting to the Wake County Board of Elections he violated state law. But a remedy — which can’t be decided by the Wake board — hasn’t yet been prescribed. 

When Gunther filed as a Wake County District Court candidate in 2019, he told the Wake County board he lived in Judicial District 10F. In November, Gunther won that seat over Republican challenger Beth Tanner. 

But Gunther lied about where he lived. He has owned a house in Cary since 2006. That puts him in District 10D. 

It was Carolina Journal reporter Don Carrington who first wrote about discrepancies in Gunther’s residency claims. In October, Carrington began looking into records for 821 Hepplewhite Court, Fuquay-Varina, the home which Gunther claimed on his candidacy and voter registration forms. The candidacy form requires a signature below this oath: “I swear or affirm that the statements on this form are, true, correct and complete to the best of my knowledge or belief.”

Gunther owns a home in Cary, Carrington confirmed, in an entirely different judicial district than the one in which he ran. Gunther’s ex-wife and daughter own the Fuquay-Varina home he claimed as his residence. His daughter appears to live there with her boyfriend. 

Carrington’s reporting bolstered questions about whether Gunther was qualified to run in District 10F. When Gunther won the election by more than 12 points, Joan Erwin, a resident in the district and a former law professor of Tanner’s, filed a protest against him. 

The three-hour hearing Wednesday, Nov. 17 included a bizarre series of closed sessions, questions, and testimony. Gunther arrived for the first portion of the hearing and made an unexpected statement — through his lawyer — admitting that he never lived in District 10F, and claiming that he intended to sell his Cary home and move into the district. That plan simply never came to fruition, Gunther’s lawyer said. 

Gunther left abruptly, leaving Erwin and Tanner surprised and confused.  

“He completely ignored the fact that he repeatedly lied to people,” Erwin told CJ, relaying her frustrations about the process she’s undertaken to seek justice for Tanner. “But we caught him.” 

The evidence against Gunther was clear, Erwin said. But though Gunther admitted his guilt at the hearing, the Wake County board required Erwin and her lawyer to present their evidence. 

Carrington testified, relaying to the Wake County board what he’d discovered in his research. He provided copies of his story and photographs of Gunther’s Cary residence. 

In March 2006, Tim Gunther bought the house at 103 Solway Court, Cary, Carrington reported. In May 2006, Gunther changed his N.C. driver’s license to 103 Solway Court. In 2013, Gunther paid off the mortgage.

In December 2019, Gunther changed his N.C. Driver’s license to 821 Hepplewhite Court.

Carrington told the board how he watched Gunther back into the driveway at 103 Solway and enter the house at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 7. At 7 a.m. Oct. 11, Carrington saw Gunther’s car in the driveway again. A bundle at the base of the driveway looked as if it was the Sunday News & Observer newspaper.

“A subscription to the News & Observer is expensive,” Carrington said in his testimony before the board. “I wouldn’t expect someone to have a paper delivered somewhere they don’t live.”

Greg Flynn, the board chair and a Democrat, seemed to question Carrington’s statements. 

“I wish we could focus on substantial evidence and less on opinion,” Flynn said. 

But later Wednesday evening Flynn told WRAL there “was an abundance of evidence,” against Gunther.

Erwin provided the board several affidavits, including one from Brett Joseph Lerschall, a close neighbor of 821 Hepplewhite Court in Fuquay-Varina. Lerschall said he’s never seen Gunther at the address. Erwin also presented tax and real estate documents showing that Gunther doesn’t own the home. 

The elections board unanimously passed a motion disqualifying Gunther from the race. But the State Board of Elections must decide what remedy Gunther will face. CJ reached out to the state board Thursday, asking when a hearing will be scheduled, but did not immediately receive a response. 

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told the News & Observer she would wait for the elections board to issue a report before considering criminal charges against Gunther. 

Unless Tanner files a challenge in Superior Court and is declared the winner, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would appoint someone to fill Gunther’s seat. Cooper usually appoints judges to empty district court seats.

But Gunther’s term hadn’t begun. He hadn’t taken the oath of office.

If Cooper picks a replacement, Democrats will have won the seat, even though it was secured illegally by a candidate who lied about where he lived. 

That’s why Tanner should win the election, Erwin said. The Republican candidate received the second highest number of votes. Gunther got 56.19% of the ballot count. Tanner received 43.81%. 

Not likely. You can never lawfully win an election unless you finish in first place, Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County board, told CJ.

Tanner told CJ she’d appreciate the opportunity. 

“I would really like to serve my community,” she said. “I feel very strongly about what happens in the district.” 

Tanner is associate director at the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency focused on the fair and impartial administration of justice. 

The lawyer shifted away from questions about her thoughts on Gunther’s illegal candidacy.

“It’s the board’s job to hear the evidence,” she said. “I don’t know that I have any opinions about how Mr. Gunther handled that. That’s up to him. I think my role as a candidate is to support the protest and let the process work through.” 

“I think the evidence says what it says and the decision will be what it is.”