Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry announced on Monday afternoon that her office has asked the NC State Bureau of Investigation to look into an allegation that city council member Monique Holsey-Hyman attempted to extort a private developer by suggesting she would support his project if he contributed to her election campaign.

Deberry released a statement about her request to the SBI days after Durham mayor Elaine O’Neal told her fellow city council members during a Thursday work session about the allegation.

Deberry stated that she had asked the SBI “to open an inquiry” into the allegations. 

“As with any criminal investigation, the existence of an allegation or inquiry is not on its own confirmation of a violation of the law,” Deberry said, adding that her office “will make no further comments on the matter while the SBI investigation is ongoing.”

It was just after 1 p.m. in the city council chamber when O’Neal told the city’s elected leaders that nearly two weeks before, on March 10, she was informed by city attorney Kimberly Rehberg that a property developer had reported to city staffers “that a sitting city council member had suggested to the developer that support would be given to the developer’s project in exchange for a donation to the council member’s election campaign.”

O’Neal did not name Holsey-Hyman while making the announcement. This week, she told the INDY that she could not disclose the name of the council member, or comment on the investigation. However, the News & Observer and other local news outlets have reported that Holsey-Hyman is the target of the SBI probe.

O’Neal told the council members that she had “promptly reached out to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government for guidance on how the council could, and-or should respond to these allegations.”

O’Neal said she also asked Rehberg to consult with several faculty members of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government and a private attorney “with experience with such allegations” to compile a list of options that the city council could use to determine how to respond to the allegations.

Prior to the work session, O’Neal said she had met individually and “in pairs” with council members and a near majority said the allegations are “incredibly disturbing” and should be “taken very seriously” and may constitute a crime with legal consequences.

O’Neal said the council decided to file a formal report and refer the matter to law enforcement.

O’Neal concluded her brief, troubling announcement by saying the city council remains committed to “honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity in all city business.” 

It was a difficult work session for Holsey-Hyman, an esteemed NC Central University assistant professor in the university’s school of social work whom the city council unanimously selected in May of last year to replace Charlie Reece. (Reece moved out of the country with his family.)

About halfway through the one-and-a-half hour work session, council member Jillian Johnson read a resolution she had drafted proposing a formal censure of Holsey-Hyman after a city staffer offered to volunteer on behalf of her election campaign.

The proposed resolution states that Holsey-Hyman, who was appointed on May 5 of last year, “is expected to uphold the public trust of the residents of the City of Durham by following all federal, state, and local laws as well as city policies.”

The resolution points to the state’s general statutes that “prohibits city employees from engaging in partisan or political activity in the workplace or with city resources, and from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”

The resolution further states that “city policy prohibits city employees from engaging in partisan or political activity while on-duty or with city resources, and from engaging in partisan or political activity which would represent a conflict of interest or which would compromise the employee’s role of impartiality in his/her position.”

Last September, four months after Holsey-Hyman was appointed, the resolution states that she “asked a city staffer to do campaign-related research for her while on duty.”

The resolution states that after the incident, “the city policy regarding campaign activity was clearly communicated to Council Member Hyman;” nonetheless, in late January, Holsey-Hyman again “asked a city staffer to do work related to her political campaign.”

This month, the city staffer “was formally disciplined for engaging in campaign activity” on Holsey-Hyman’s behalf “while on duty and using city resources.”

The work session grew testy during the individual council members’ comments about the proposed resolution.

O’Neal said she had not signed the preliminary resolution and added that no one “can sign my name without my permission, ever.”

Mark-Anthony Middleton, the city’s mayor pro tem, said that in all of the years he has been a city council member, there has never been a resolution to censure a colleague, even after “knock-down, drag-out fights.” But he likened the resolution to censure Holsey-Hyman to receiving a ticket for running a red light or a seatbelt violation and “certainly not a commentary about the totality of her character.”

Holsey-Hyman said she was disheartened and disappointed by the resolution.

She said one of the incidents involved a city staffer who volunteered to help her with questions she had about different political action committees and resources. She said the employee’s assistance had been approved by the city’s human resources department. 

Holsey-Hyman said the second incident centered on a city staffer using their individual social media account to invite another employee to one of her campaign events.  

Holsey-Hyman added that as a licensed social worker she is required to abide by a code of ethics and that her professional conduct had never been called into question after decades of work in the field. But now, in addition to her “character being questioned,” she felt “bullied by some council members.”

Far from engaging in corruption, Holsey-Hyman said she’s only served on the city council for 10 months and is still learning the job.

“I’m really disappointed,” she later added. “I turn 58 this year. I put my name in the hat to help people. I have never in my life been sanctioned. This is a slander of my character because I don’t dance to the drummer’s beat that some people want me to.”

Starting with being informed about the allegations about Holsey-Hyman’s conversation with the private developer, O’Neal said the weeks leading up to last Thursday’s city council work session were the most difficult during her decades as an elected official.

“I don’t know where Durham is poised,” the mayor said before adjourning the work session, “or where we are going.”

“But I do know that the city is paying attention, to all of us.”

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.