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Updated: Lawyer calls Waddell’s Dismas Charities allegations untrue

Jonathan Charleston said he never engaged in private conversations with City Council members to seek their support of a special-use permit for the proposed halfway house. So why did the city attorney ask him to stop communicating with council members?


Editor's note: This story has been updated to include emails from City Attorney Karen McDonald and council member Yvonne Kinston.

When she resigned from the City Council last November, Tisha Waddell alleged that Fayetteville lawyer Jonathan Charleston held private discussions with at least two council members in an effort to garner their support of a special-use permit for a proposed halfway house.

“If this happened,” Waddell said in her five-page resignation letter, “it would be a direct violation of the law/policy regarding Special Use Permit.”

It never happened, said Charleston, who had represented Dismas Charities, the nonprofit organization seeking the permit.

“Former council member Waddell has made baseless allegations against the majority of her former colleagues on City Council and myself,” Charleston said in an email. “All of the individuals she has made allegations against are credible people with solid reputations. Waddell’s allegations cannot be substantiated because they are not true.”

But emails provided by Waddell show that City Attorney Karen McDonald had concerns over Charleston communicating with council members while representing Dismas Charities and asked him to stop after the council voted to deny the special-use permit.

In an interview with CityView TODAY in mid-February, Waddell alleged that Charleston spoke privately to council members D.J. Haire and Courtney Banks-McLaughlin about the special-use permit for Dismas Charities.

“He had conversations, and again, this is from having conversations at the council level, but I know that he had conversations with D.J. Haire,” Waddell said. “In fact, I was made aware that they met at a coffee shop, I want to say right before the vote or right after the vote, and like a coffee shop in the Hay Street area.

“And then also, I know that he was having conversations with Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, and I know that they were kind of in terms of how this should all have, why this is a good idea and should be supported.”

Haire said he never had a conversation with Charleston about the permit.

“I've never had any conversation with anyone – with Charleston…” Haire said. “That just goes back to those allegations that people throw out. No, sir. I don't know anything about that. That didn't happen.”

Banks-McLaughlin could not be reached for comment.

Haire and Banks-McLaughlin voted with the 5-4 majority in February 2020 to deny the special-use permit. The denial was based largely on the premise that surrounding property values could be harmed.

After the decision, Banks-McLaughlin said her vote to deny was a mistake. She said she thought she had been voting to approve the permit. In April, Banks-McLaughlin made a motion for the council to take a revote. The motion died because it did not get the required eight votes in favor.

Dismas Charities is a nonprofit organization that wants to build a 100-bed halfway house on the 900 block of Cain Road for federal prisoners about to transition back into society. Its residents would be free to go to work or school.

Dismas bought the property, near the intersection of Bragg Boulevard, before it had secured the special-use permit, which is required before the halfway house could be built. 

In August 2020, Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Tally upheld the City Council’s decision to deny the permit. That decision was appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which on Tuesday announced that Dismas had met all eight standards of Fayetteville’s ordinance and that the council had no choice but to approve the permit.

Charleston represented Dismas when the council voted to deny the permit. Another Fayetteville lawyer, Michael Porter, represented the organization during the appeals process.

In her interview with CityView TODAY, Waddell said Charleston had also improperly sent emails about Dismas to the council before its vote on the permit.

“We're not supposed to receive any information, you know, from any of the parties before we actually come in and hear the information presented to the entire council,” she said. “And I know that our attorney at the time, (Karen) McDonald, had replied to him and let him know … not to do that.”

McDonald said she doesn’t recall doing that before the council voted to deny the permit. But she did do it afterward, according to emails provided by Waddell.

In an email dated April 16, 2020, McDonald responded to a message from Charleston seeking a revote on the permit because of McLaughlin’s alleged mistake. Charleston said the email was the only one he sent to McDonald regarding the matter.

“While I appreciate the congenial relationship you have with the Mayor and members of the City Council, given the nature of the Quasi-Judicial Proceeding and your request, I ask that you refrain from contacting the Mayor and City Council any further regarding this matter,” McDonald told Charleston.

Waddell provided those emails and others. An email dated April 2, 2020, between McDonald and council member Yvonne Kinston again shows that McDonald had concerns about council members talking to representatives of Dismas Charities after the council voted to deny the permit. 

“I have had several conversations with Attorney Jonathan Charleston,” McDonald wrote to Kinston. “As I understand it, Dismas Charities is continuing to consider its options regarding an appeal. Given the potential for an appeal, it remains my opinion that Council Members should refrain from talking to representatives of Dismas Charities.”

The email was in response to one from Kinston to McDonald in which Kinston seeks clarity concerning communication between Dismas and the council. Kinston was among those who voted to deny the permit.

“I received a call yesterday, with the intentions of discussing my vote and Why,” Kinston wrote, not mentioning the caller’s name. “I am not sure of the root reason of the call weeks after the decision was completed. Nevertheless, I want to verify if anything changed where Council Members shouldn’t refrain from talking about the decision in the case for some reason or obligated to discuss.”

Kinston could not be reached for comment.

Dismas Charities, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky, operates 33 state and federal residential re-entry centers and support offices in 14 states. According to its website, the organization serves more than 8,000 men and women returning to society from state and federal prisons each year.

Dismas centers include one in Greensboro, which is proposed to be expanded from 47 beds to 84. The expansion, and the proposed center in Fayetteville, come at a time when the federal government has been scaling back funding for halfway houses.

In 2017, the federal Board of Prisons cut off funding to 16 of about 230 halfway houses nationwide, partly because the board said they were being underused. The cuts came as the federal government and states look for ways to reduce their prison populations.

A 2015 article in Prison Legal News said many of the country’s halfway houses have been plagued with problems.

“Although some halfway houses are adequately managed and staffed with competent professionals, others are operated more for profit than an interest in helping offenders successfully return to society,” the publication reported. “Too many incidents involving poorly-supervised halfway house residents and indifferent, or even criminal, behavior by employees have occurred in almost every state as well as the federal prison system.”

The publication, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, said Dismas Charities “has a good reputation in the industry. While even Dismas has had its share of problems, it seems to genuinely care about the quality of its transitional services.”

Regardless, residents who live near the proposed halfway house in Fayetteville say they worry about their property values, and, more importantly, about their safety.

One of those residents, George Turner, said opponents were expected to hear soon from their lawyer about any next steps that could be taken in an effort to keep Dismas away from their homes.

According to the nonprofit news organization ProPublica, the president of Dismas Charities, Ray Weis, was paid more than $600,000 in 2019, while the executive vice president earned more than $400,000.

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Fayetteville, City Council, special-use permit, halfway house, Dismas Charities, Tisha Waddell, resignation letter, Jonathan Charleston