DUBLIN — Jeffery S. Smith, a nine-year member of the Dublin Town Council and member of the Bladen County Planning Board, has been a catalyst of action and reaction for more than a year over the issue of his sweepstakes cafes and gambling machines.
A 2013 arrest in Bladen County for operating a video gaming business, a 2013 lawsuit against Bladen County Sheriff Prentis Benston and the county, and an arrest last week in Columbus County on two counts of operating a video gambling machine have some local residents — and even a Dublin town councilman — concerned with the perception and reputation of the town because of Smith’s legal troubles.
Smith, 44, operated Aladdin, an Internet sweepstakes cafe, in Dublin at the intersection of N.C. 87 and Third Street before it was forced to close last year by the Sheriff’s Office. He also operated the Gold Rush Internet Cafe on U.S. 701 just outside Whiteville, where investigators confiscated 68 computer hard drives and nearly $6,000 in cash on June 17.
In both instances, Smith was arrested and charged with operating a video gaming machine, which is a misdemeanor.
His lawsuit against Bladen County and Benston last year was eventually dropped by Smith before it went to trial.
But what much of the talk concerning Smith seems to be lately is whether he should be allowed to continue serving on the Dublin board. Smith doesn’t see the problem.
“Dublin is a small town. We meet once a month. If we were a large city where we met more often … it might be different,” Smith said. “But I’m probably the most active member of the board as far as researching problems and finding solutions. (Those incidents) have no impact on my ability to continue serving (and) I don’t think the voters have a problem with the business I am in. I’ve been re-elected twice since the business opened (in Dublin).”
Not everyone shares that view.
Tommy Thompson, who lost a bid to unseat Smith in November by a single vote, 44-43, after canvassing and a recount, said Smith’s legal troubles do hurt the reputation of the board and town as a whole.
“I think it puts a black spot on the town because he’s a commissioner,” Thompson said. “And I think a majority of the town’s residents feel this isn’t a good thing for a town commissioner to be involved in.”
Smith said he’s approached often by residents wanting to know when his business (Aladdin) would be opening again, which he says shows “there is a demand for it.” But Thompson doesn’t think that kind of business belongs in a small town like Dublin.
“If I were on the board, I’d probably talk to Mr. Smith about how this looks for the town,” Thompson said. “But it’s all up to the board to decide how it will react to this.”
The Dublin Town Council appears split on the issue.
“I get asked a lot about why we aren’t doing anything about it,” Commissioner David Kirby said. “If the state Supreme Court says it’s illegal, it’s illegal.
“It does look bad on the board and each one of us,” he said. “A lot of people are telling me the same thing.”
But Mayor Horace Wyatt and Commissioner David Hursey aren’t as ready to jump into the fray.
“Until the man is proven guilty, I don’t think we should do anything,” Hursey said. “I personally don’t like that kind of business, but I’m not a lawyer and don’t know the law. And I’m not really hearing much from anyone about this, and I think it’s a vendetta by the DA’s office because they didn’t win here.”
“I’ve heard some talk, but as far as I know he’s legal,” Wyatt said. “But I’d rather not comment on that type of business. We’ll just see how the whole thing goes first.”
Smith’s case in Bladen County ended in a hung jury in April, and District Attorney Jon David recently told The Fayetteville Observer that no decision has been made on whether to retry the case.
Instead, David’s office — which serves Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties — is moving ahead with the charges in Columbus County, and Smith is hoping it will go to District Court rather than Superior Court, where David’s office has leaned toward taking it.
“I’m optimistic and have had excellent guidance along the way, so I am well-versed of the laws of the industry I am involved in,” Smith said. “I don’t see any way I can lose this. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ resources by the District Attorney’s Office.
“And if he forces this to Superior Court, it will take even more resources to be used,” he said. “I challenge him (Jon David) to take this to District Court as soon as possible. To not do that is nothing short of arrogance.”
David’s office has reportedly claimed that going before a jury in Superior Court can save the taxpayers money because a conviction in District Court can be appealed, causing taxpayers to potentially pay for two trials.