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AVL Watchdog

On Guard in Asheville

Asheville Watchdog is powered by a cadre of accomplished journalists who retired to the North Carolina mountains.

Asheville Watchdogs, from left: Tom Fiedler, Sally Kestin, and Bob Gremillion

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared Nov. 18 in The Assembly, a digital magazine about the people, institutions, and ideas that shape North Carolina. It is reprinted here with permission.]

The view from the deck stretches past a wall of changing trees to the jagged ridge of the Blue Ridge mountains. On a rainy afternoon in October, the sun had just begun teasing its way through the clouds. 

Tucked in the hills of north Asheville, the deck is at the home of Sally Kestin and her husband, Bob Gremillion. They were joined that day by three other retired journalists, transforming the deck into a sort of newsroom for a digital venture that’s not only filling gaps in western North Carolina journalism, but trying to become a model in the state’s rapidly changing media environment.

Kestin and Gremillion started the Asheville Watchdog in early 2020.

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A Box Full of Cash and an Empty Promise

In Part 3: “If this is legal, it shouldn’t be,” a local lawmaker says

Most homeowners could never fathom strangers acquiring a portion of their property, obtaining a court order to sell it without their consent and depriving them of the value they’d accrued over years or decades of ownership.

There are legal protections against that, Tasha D’Ascanio thought — until it happened to her.

D’Ascanio and her uncle, Derrell Ray Pettit Jr., had each inherited half of a one-acre tract just outside West Asheville, with a tax value of $123,600, that had been home to three generations of their family.

But investors including Robert Perry Tucker II acquired the land and through an exploitive but legal process cut the family out of its fortune, an Asheville Watchdog investigation found. In the end, D’Ascanio got nothing, and Pettit ended up homeless for five months.

“I don’t know what happened,” D’Ascanio,

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Imperfectly Legal: Forced Sales Hurt Heirs, Poor Homeowners

Part 2: Asheville-area investors exploit Jim Crow-era law

Five hundred dollars was all it took for Robert Perry Tucker II to gain an interest in an Asheville home that had been owned by a Black family since 1918. 

Two elderly heirs signed deeds selling their shares of the home to a Tucker company for $250 apiece. With their ownership in hand, Tucker’s company used a Reconstruction-era law to force a sale of the entire property, and another Tucker company bought it at auction for $3,750.

The eight heirs whose family had owned the property for a century received $445 each, the auction commissioner reported. The Tucker company that bought the property sold it in three months for $55,000.

Robert Tucker, left, and his attorney, Peter Henry, at an April hearing held virtually in Buncombe County Superior Court.READ MORE

Real Estate Deals Strip Elderly, Poor of Homes, Land, and Inheritances

In Part 1 of our series, a local investor is accused of fraud

Mary Thompson lost 17 years of home equity. Photo credit: Pat Barcas, Asheville Watchdog

Many were elderly or Black homeowners in distress. Some were vulnerable to a Reconstruction-era property law abused so often that it has been rewritten in other states, but not North Carolina.

And most were left embittered or poorer by their encounters with Buncombe County real estate investor Robert Perry Tucker II, who acquired their houses and lands at far below market rates, a year-long Asheville Watchdog investigation found.

In a review of more than four dozen of Tucker’s real estate transactions since 2014, Asheville Watchdog found his companies have acquired interests in Buncombe properties for as little as $250 — or nothing at all. Many of the sales appear to have generated profits for Tucker while erasing years if not generations of home equity for property owners, nearly half of them Black.

Tucker, an attorney,

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A Letter From the Publisher

Dear Friends,

As the publisher of the nonprofit Asheville Watchdog, I have been amazed at what our all-volunteer reporting staff has accomplished in our first year and a half. Of course, my expectations were high based solely on their credentials – three Pulitzer Prizes and impressive careers at some of the country’s leading media organizations. But their hard work and attention to detail is unmatched, especially for a group of retirees! 

Through their meticulous reporting, The Watchdog has revealed the underpinnings and consequences of the sale of Mission Hospital, the misinformation and lies told in the critically important NC 11 Congressional race, and we are preparing to publish a major investigation, the result of a year-long effort, detailing how mostly elderly and Black homeowners have signed over their properties to a local investor and forfeited years if not generations of equity.

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Pandemic Is Financial Bonanza for HCA

CEO says "disciplined operating culture" enabled record earnings

Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, which operates Asheville’s Mission Hospital and five other hospitals in Western North Carolina, reported Friday that it made $2.27 billion in profits in the three-month period that ended Sept. 30, triple the amount in the same period last year.

The record earnings coincided with the summer surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations caused by the Delta variant. HCA said COVID patients accounted for 13 percent of all admissions to the chain’s 183 hospitals during the period.

Shares of HCA’s stock have also tripled in price since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than 20 months ago, creating a financial bonanza for investors and company executives. HCA is the largest employer in Asheville.

Samuel N. Hazen, HCA’s chief executive officer, credited the company’s record profit margins to a “disciplined operating culture.” He said HCA was on track to use its cash to buy back $8 billion in company stock in 2021.

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Cawthorn Pointedly Defies Laws Banning Weapons on School Property

In latest incident, a short dagger in his pants

Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaking Oct. 5 at Western Carolina University (photo: David Wheeler)

[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include yet another complaint, at end of story.]

For the second time in as many months, Rep. Madison Cawthorn faces a potential criminal complaint for carrying a weapon — in the latest incident, a “combat” automatic knife similar to a switchblade — in a public school building.  

The 26-year-old freshman Congressman was photographed Tuesday night at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee with the knife handle protruding from his pants pocket. 

Enlarged view of knife clip

It appeared to be a different knife than the one he was seen carrying three weeks ago during an appearance before the Henderson County Board of Education. That also prompted a citizen complaint to be filed with Henderson County Sheriff Lowell Griffin. 

Griffin, a Republican,

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Batchelor Withdraws from GOP Primary Race to Replace Cawthorn in NC11

The field of challengers to Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s renomination narrowed Sunday with the withdrawal of Army veteran and Haywood County deputy sheriff Eric Batchelor.

Batchelor sent an email to supporters early Sunday announcing the suspension of his intra-party challenge to the first-term incumbent. But he added that his decision was intended to improve the chances of the remaining three announced challengers to stop Cawthorn from winning renomination as the Western North Carolina representative.

“With myself and three others challenging Cawthorn in the primary, the vote is split so that he will probably still emerge as the victor,” Batchelor wrote in an early-morning email. “I have met with two of the three remaining candidates and they understand the consequences of our high numbers as well.”

Under North Carolina election law, a candidate needs only 30 percent of the vote in a primary election to secure a party nomination. In a multi-candidate field,

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Alex Comfort Joins Asheville Watchdog Staff

Alex Comfort

Alex Comfort, a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), is joining Asheville Watchdog as director of fundraising programs for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit news organization. A fundraising professional for 35 years, Comfort was formerly Associate Vice Chancellor for Development at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and has twice been named “Outstanding Fund Raising Executive” by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, first by the AFP chapter of Greater New Orleans in 1995, and then for the western North Carolina AFP chapter in 2010. 

He has also been a capital campaign field director for Ward, Dreshman & Reinhardt; Director of Development for Covenant House New Orleans; Vice President of the LSU Medical Center Foundation in New Orleans; and Executive Director of the Cradle of Forestry Interpretation Association in Brevard, North Carolina.

A consultant in fundraising since 2011, Comfort is a popular public speaker and has taught a “Fundraising Boot Camp” course in regional universities since 2013. He is the author of “Even a Blind Squirrel Finds an Occasional Acorn: Fundraising Tales from the Front Lines.”

Comfort graduated in history from Sewanee: The University of the South,

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Becky Tin Joins Board of Asheville Watchdog

Becky Tin

Becky Tin, a lawyer and former district court judge, has joined Asheville Watchdog’s Board of Directors. 

Tin, who divides her time between Asheville and Charlotte, was a Mecklenburg County District Court judge for 16 years, presiding over domestic violence cases, high-conflict divorces, landlord-tenant and other civil and criminal matters. 

She received the 2013 Women of Justice Award for Public Service from North Carolina Lawyers Weekly; was recognized as 2018 Judge of the Year by the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys; and received the 2019 John B. McMillan Distinguished Service Award for exemplary service to the legal profession from the North Carolina State Bar. She also served on the North Carolina District Court Judges’ Education Committee with faculty from the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, helping to design curriculum and lecturing at statewide judicial conferences.

Before her legal career,

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