“I want down low — see what you can do without drawing attention,” Jones told the officer, according to court records. “This involves family, so I don’t want anyone to know.”
There was a hurdle: Outside of extreme circumstances, phone carriers do not disclose text messages to law-enforcement members unless there is probable cause that they contain evidence of a crime. And only a “neutral and detached judicial officer” could sign a search warrant authorizing such a release.
Jones knew this beforehand, and the FBI officer told him as much. Still, Jones pushed, according to court documents that detailed the many messages the two exchanged last October.
“The texts are continuing,” Jones texted the officer about a week after the initial request. “I hope you can get them with no one finding out. If you can’t, at least you tried.”
The two met in person on Oct. 27, 2015, to “finalize” the deal, court records show.
The FBI officer told Jones that he was going to Greenville the next day to see the “federal magistrate,” supposedly to obtain a search warrant, but he wanted to double-check the phone numbers before going through “that process,” court records stated.
Jones reassured him multiple times that the FBI officer’s involvement would “never come out” and that he could trust Jones “one million percent.”
“This will never come back that anybody knows I’ve even got this stuff,” Jones told the officer. “I will be so cool about it … I will handle it in such a way … this will never come out. I promise.”
After the FBI officer raised the issue of payment, Jones told him to name a fair number.
The initially agreed-upon price? “A couple of cases of beer.”
“FYI,” the FBI officer texted back the following day. “Just to keep things simple I’m a bud light guy.”
“I can handle that!!!” Jones responded.
On Nov. 3, the two once again met in person on the steps of the Wayne County Courthouse. The FBI officer handed a disk to Jones, who was wearing his black judicial robes.
Instead of the promised Bud Light, Jones gave the officer $100 in cash.
“There you go. We’re good. Are we good?” Jones asked the officer, then added. “Do you want this [disk] back so you can destroy it?”
What Jones didn’t know was that the FBI officer had long ago reported the illegal request to his supervisors, initiating an FBI investigation. Their in-person conversation had been recorded, and the disk that Jones paid for did not contain what he thought it did.
Jones was arrested on Nov. 4, the day after he received the disk.
The numerous text messages between Jones and the FBI officer would soon be turned over as evidence in a damning bribery case against the judge.
On Friday, following a five-day trial, a jury deliberated for a half-hour to find Jones guilty on three corruption charges: superseding indictment with paying bribes, paying gratuities and attempted corrupt influence of an official proceeding.
Jones will be sentenced in January. He faces a maximum of 37 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines for all three charges, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the eastern district of North Carolina.
“The jury’s verdict affirms a bedrock principle of the rule of law,” U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce said in a statement. “No person holding a [position] of public trust in our legal system is permitted to subvert that system for his own personal objectives.”
“Corruption will not be tolerated, no matter the level of government, the complexity of the scheme, or the names of those committing the fraud,” FBI special agent John Strong said in a statement. “Rooting out public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority and we rely on our law enforcement partners and citizens to help us identify those offenders who put our democracy at risk.”
Jones’s defense attorneys maintained that the FBI officer, who was also a Wayne County sheriff’s deputy, could have easily halted the request before it blew out of proportion and ended in a “SWAT-team-like raid” and arrest at the judge’s home, the News and Observer reported.
Jones was elected to an eight-year term in 2008 and is running for reelection in November. He is the senior resident superior court judge for District 8-B, which covers Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties. He received his law degree from Wake Forest University and his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, according to his bio for the North Carolina courts system.
Jones could not be reached Saturday at several numbers listed for him and did not respond to an interview request sent to his campaign’s Facebook account.
Last Thursday, in the middle of the trial, Jones posted that it had been “a difficult and busy week.”
“I’m facing a personal trial and engaged in a re-election campaign,” he said in the Facebook post. “But on our journey we all face difficulties. We should never forget we don’t walk alone.”
Jones continued by citing Scripture and asking God to grant him help and wisdom.
Early Friday morning, before jurors delivered their verdict, Jones once again posted a devotion on Facebook, this time citing Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet.”
“I appreciate everyone’s support and prayers,” he wrote. “I really need them today.”