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Local attorney: High-profile defendants determine white-collar status
December 17, 2013



While many people consider white-collar crimes to be financial in nature—often accompanied by a stay in a federal prison—one local defense attorney believes white-collar crimes are defined by the defendant rather than the criminal offense.

James Payne, a criminal defense attorney in New Hanover and Brunswick counties, specializes in death penalty cases and white-collar criminal defense, which he said can include charges like driving while impaired.

“Typically when you look at white-collar crimes, most often you see folks charged with fraud, money laundering, embezzlement—something like that,” Payne said. “To a large extent that’s true. But the characteristic of the offender is the other side of the coin. Look at the offender—fraud, money laundering, embezzlement—it’s just stealing with a fancy name.”

Payne considers politicians, business leaders, military officials, law enforcement officers and other similar individuals arrested on charges like DWI as potential white-collar defendants. And because of their high-profile status in the community, people tend to take notice, specifically the media and prosecutors who “don’t want to be perceived as soft on crime,” Payne said.

The past year saw several of these cases in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Those arrested included a former district attorney, a current county commissioner, the former CEO of a local housing authority and, most recently, a former sheriff’s office narcotics lieutenant.

New Hanover County Commissioner Brian Berger was arrested Dec. 6 for the second time in a year on charges of drug possession and DWI. (Read story)

In September, Michael Krause, then-CEO of the Wilmington Housing Authority, was arrested on DWI—also his second DWI arrest. He was terminated by the housing authority’s board of commissioners days after his arrest. (Related story here)

In August, Rex Gore, who served as the District Attorney in Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties for nearly 20 years, pleaded guilty to willfully failing to discharge his duties in relation to allegations he conspired with a former assistant district attorney over a five-year period to submit $14,000 worth of travel expenses. Elaine Kelley, Gore’s former assistant district attorney in Bladen County, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor misprision of a felony, essentially a charge of maladministration of public office.

See related story: Former DA pleads guilty to misdemeanor

It’s not just the attention of the press and DA’s office; it’s the pressure of the day-to-day responsibilities coupled with the increased attention, Payne said.

“Very few of us could live under that scrutiny—to be responsible for so much,” Payne said.

But Ben David, District Attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, said the DA’s office prosecutes all individuals to the fullest extent of the law—regardless of their job or elected position.

“White-collar offenses are defined by the type of offense (financial crimes like money laundering, embezzlement), not by the status of the defendant,” David said. “While it is undoubtedly true that the press and larger community give increased scrutiny when public officials are arrested and prosecuted, they are treated no differently than everyday citizens in how their cases are handled in court.

“Upholding the constitutional guarantee of equal protection means that everyone must answer for their crimes based upon their conduct. Results will vary given the facts of the case, not by the social standing of the accused. Public officials who run afoul of the law are neither punished more harshly or given an leniency based upon their positions.”

Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or On Twitter: @Cgcurran