Five years ago former Mint Hill fire chief Jeremy Russell made headlines when he pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $225,000 from the town and its fire department.
He went on to serve time in a federal prison in South Carolina.
Now Russell is one of four candidates running for two council seats in Lake Park, a small town in Union County near Indian Trail.
Russell, 43, is not hiding from his felony record or what he says was a long struggle with opioids that led to it. In fact, he said he hopes he can help steer other addicts from the same path.
On Thursday President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has said four people in the state die from overdoses every day.
Russell said he’s up front about his record and what he says was his own addiction.
“I knew I could dwell in my past or create a better future,” he told the Observer. “Whether I win the election or not, I feel that I’ve kind of won because I threw myself out there. Forgiving yourself is the first step.”
10 months at federal prison
Russell, son of a former Mecklenburg County police officer, had been fire chief for seven years when he stepped down in early 2012. Later that year he pleaded guilty to embezzlement.
Prosecutors said he set up a sham corporation and submitted bogus invoices for services never provided. They said he used the money to fund his personal lifestyle and gambling habit.
Before his sentencing, an official of a Charlotte drug treatment facility said Russell was enrolled and appeared “determined to live a life in recovery.”
Russell served 10 months of a 24-month sentence at a federal prison in Edgefield, S.C. He shaved off time by undergoing treatment for what he says was addiction to prescription painkillers he took for gout.
There are those who worry about electing a man convicted of embezzling.
“The concern that people have is not that people don’t want to give him a second chance, but it’s a concern about what he did in holding a position in town government,” said Mayor David Cleveland. “To go from that to a position in government would concern residents.”
Another ex-felon in office
If elected, Russell might not be the only former felon serving in public office in the county.
Marshville Mayor Franklin Deese was convicted at 22 for armed robbery and served more than 10 years in federal prisons, including the maximum security Central Prison. He returned to his hometown of Marshville in 1989 with what he said was $30 and the clothes on his back.
He got involved in the community and in county politics and was elected mayor in 2005. Now running for a seventh term at 60, Deese acknowledges that some people can’t forget his past.
“I tell people that’s not who I am, that’s not even who I was, that’s something I did,” he says. “I made some bad choices. I think I have most people’s respect, even people who don’t necessarily like me or agree with my politics.”
Deese not only acknowledges his record, he makes it a cautionary tale in talks to youth groups. He’s even written a book titled “From Inmate to Mayor.”
Russell, who regained his citizenship rights this year, said he hopes his run can inspire others struggling with addiction or trying to move on from troubled pasts.
“Everybody’s got a past,” he said. “You can live in that past or you can decide to make a better future for yourself and others. I’ve got two choices. I can crawl under a rock or I can own up and man up to my mistakes. …
“I would certainly hope it would make a difference to those who have made mistakes in their lives to realize that you don’t have to bow down and hide and that you can pick yourself up, dust yourself up and make a difference.”