James Hastings claims: Politics led to license plate office closing
By Scott Nicholson
James C. Hastings believes the state’s closing of the local license plate office is politically motivated and he believes the state has violated its contract with him.
“I can draw no other conclusions,” Hastings said in a Sunday interview.
Hastings has had a contract with the state since 1988 to operate Watauga’s only license plate agency. The office was closed on Thursday, and Hastings was first told it was because of a staffing shortage, then heard reports that the closure was due to financial discrepancies.
A former employee is under investigation for the discrepancies, according to Hastings, but he said the state knew about the internal investigation nearly two months ago. In the interview, Hastings recounted the events leading up to what he said was a surprise decision by the state to close the office.
The Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has field supervisors make monthly reports on each of the license plate agencies in the state. A July report noted deposits made to a bank did not match with records submitted to the DMV. An official of The Hastings Company, which oversees the tag office, discussed the discrepancies with DMV field supervisors David Chadwick and Myron West. Company officials discussed the matter with local police but decided to conduct an internal investigation before filing any charges against an employee of the tag office. Hastings said in his 17 years of running the tag office, there had been discrepancies before, but the DMV had always worked with them to resolve any issues. He said the two parties always had a good business relationship.
“We didn’t feel we had everything documented to make a charge, but it certainly warranted continuing an internal investigation and continuing to work with our field supervisors,” Hastings said.
Chadwick and West met with Hastings Company officials on Aug. 29 and Sept. 6 to discuss the matter. A e-mailed letter dated Sept. 7 from Chadwick said they went through deposit records for six days in June and also had a bank provide copies of the checks. West and Chadwick noted shortages of more than $6,000.
“After going through all of this paperwork, we all felt that the [suspected employee] was involved in dishonesty. In talking with her, she claims that she did everything properly and does not know why the overages and shortages occurred,” Chadwick wrote in an e-mail to the Hastings Company on Tuesday. “Most of the occurrences were due to employees keeping cash as check, or check as cash. On two dates there were checks deposited from the next day.”
DMV and Hastings Company officials had met with the suspected employee on Tuesday. The Hastings Company later called the employee who was under suspicion and asked to meet with her Wednesday. She later left a message on an answering machine saying she had found another job and wouldn’t be coming in to work. At that time, the Hastings Company notified the DMV that the employee had quit and that a replacement was hired that morning. The company also formally requested an investigation by the Boone Police Department.
When a company official returned from the police department, he received a phone call from Chadwick, who said that the DMV would be closing the office on Thursday, Sept. 8. Chadwick said the closure was due to a “staffing problem” and said the decision was made by his superiors.
In his August report, Chadwick answered “yes” to the question, “Is office staffed properly for volume of work being processed?” Hastings said under state guidelines, a license plate agency conducting Watauga’s volume of business should have three employees. The new employee had been hired on Wednesday and would undergo training Thursday so the office could be fully staffed.
On Thursday, West, two armed DMV enforcement officers, and two other DMV staff showed up at the office before it opened. They took the computers, which were state property, and left a notice on the door saying the office was closed and giving addresses and phone numbers for tag offices in adjoining counties. Hastings was also ordered to reimburse the state for the disputed amount on Wednesday, which he did.
Hastings, who has been active in state politics and was chair of the North Carolina Republican Party for nearly two years in the mid-1990s, believes political manipulation is behind the closing. Under a 1992 contract with the state, he has a right to maintain the tag office unless the state provides him with written notice for “cause.” He said he has never received written notice and still isn’t sure why the office was closed.
“I think they (DMV) have violated their contract in several instances,” Hastings said. “We’re not the only office that has employees run it. Unless it’s a small office, the contractor is generally not involved.”
Hastings has called local representatives and DMV officials to try to find answers, and said he has not been contacted by the State Bureau of Investigation nor DOT spokesperson Bill Jones, who told the Watauga Democrat last week that the DOT had been watching the tag office’s records for a while.
“I don’t even know who Bill Jones is,” Hastings said. “I’m going to fight to clear my name that has been smeared by DOT in Raleigh and I’m going to hold the state responsible for any terms of the contract they may have violated and I’m going to fight for that.”
According to Hastings, DMV deputy director Don Ferrier told Hastings on Wednesday the decision to close the office had been made in the DMV commissioner’s office. “I asked him, ‘Have you ever lost one penny from this office?’ and he said no,” Hastings said.
“I’m still incredulous that we have been treated this way. This area needs a license plate agency. Ferrier said he would make a decision within 90 days over whether the area justified having a tag office and, if so, who would be the contractor.”
Hastings feels he won’t be selected as the contractor and expects a Democrat will get the contract. “Even if I were selected, I wouldn’t take it,” Hastings said.
Hastings owns some regional franchise restaurants and said the tag office doesn’t generate a whole lot of income. He said the office receives a commission of about $1.60 per transaction, and also earns money from miscellaneous decorative tags, hardware, and notary fees.
“Our objective in this office is to serve the people of Watauga County,” he said. “If it were purely a business decision, I wouldn’t be running this office. I would have closed it a long time ago.”
Hastings said he was sorry to turn people away from the office and regrets the sudden closing. “This is a terrible, terrible inconvenience to the people of this county,” he said. “We have run this place with all the proper business controls and proper integrity, and that’s why I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed people will be inconvenienced until the people in Raleigh determine which political supporter gets it (the tag office contract).”
Capt. William Greene of the Boone Police Department confirmed that an ongoing investigation was underway but said no charges had been filed against the employee.
Ferrier said Monday morning that the closing was due to “accounting irregularities.” He said when state money is involved, the state takes the equipment and accountable stock such as tags and tag stickers. Ferrier said the contract holder, which is Hastings in this case, would be held accountable under the contract even if he is not personally involved in any wrongdoing.
“The SBI will most likely be involved since it is an accounting issue,” Ferrier said. He was unable to say whether staffing concerns contributed to the alleged irregularities. He also did not know how long the investigation would take or when a tag office would reopen in the county.
William McKinley, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, said Monday morning, “Our office has not been asked to investigate” and said any SBI investigation would fall under the Attorney General’s office.
•Scott Nicholson can be contacted at email@example.com