Former Mecklenburg County District Judge Bill Belk, already banned from holding judicial office, now faces possible punishment from the North Carolina State Bar.
On Aug. 23, Belk will appear before the bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission on charges he lied during a 2009 investigation into his possible misconduct while he sat on the bench.
Margaret Cloutier, the bar’s deputy counsel, said Monday that Belk faces disciplinary action ranging from warnings, reprimands and censure, to suspension of his law license and disbarment.
Belk could not be reached for comment Monday. In a written response to the bar’s charges, he said he had not lied to investigators and that his answers had been misconstrued.
Belk, the grandson of the Belk department store chain founder and the nephew of a former Charlotte mayor, resigned his seat on Nov. 6, 2009, after a tumultuous year on the court. Six months later, the state Supreme Court found that Belk “demonstrated willful misconduct in office” and banned him from returning to the bench.
At the heart of both cases was Belk’s refusal to resign from the board of directors of Sonic Automotive, one of the country’s largest auto retailers. Belk had served on the board for a decade. But once he was elected to the bench, his failure to give up his Sonic seat violated state judicial standards, the court ruled. Judges are prohibited from holding such business positions to avoid conflicts of interest.
Now the state bar, which regulates the practice of law in North Carolina, is picking up the case. In the most recent filing, the agency says Belk told the executive director of the Judicial Standards Commission and one of its investigators that he kept his board seat because Sonic supplied his health insurance.
Sonic, in fact, did not insure its directors. (Belk received his private insurance from Monroe Hardware, a Belk family-owned business.) Sonic, however, paid Belk almost $145,000 in stock and fees in 2008. He received $106,445 as a new district judge.
In lying during the investigation, Belk “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” the bar’s complaint says. It is signed by Margaret Hunt, a Brevard attorney who chairs the bar’s grievance committee, and Cloutier, who will present the charges during the August hearing.
The case will be heard by a panel made up of two lawyers and a private citizen. It will be chaired by New Bern attorney Joshua Willey Jr. The other two members are Karen Ray of Mooresville and Renny Deese, a Fayetteville attorney.
In his written response, Belk denies saying Sonic supplied his insurance in 2009. At the time Belk was still a judge, he says, and was covered by the state, along with Monroe Hardware.
Belk said he was referring to the prospect of Sonic insurance as “his safety net.” He lost state coverage when he left the court and said in an earlier hearing that his Monroe Hardware insurance expired in 2010.
Belk wrote: “The alleged statement from (the investigator) notes: ‘Sonic is my source of health insurance and my retirement.’ This was misconstrued to mean at the current time, rather than in regards to the future.
“...‘Source’ does not mean have coverage. Thus, I did not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, nor did I intentionally make this statement for the purpose of misleading the (Judicial Inquiry) commission in the investigation of this matter.”
Researcher Maria David contributed