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NC sheriff confronted by county board after insurance dropped

Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page speaks during a press conference outside the N.C. Legislative Building Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page speaks during a press conference outside the N.C. Legislative Building Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.


The Rockingham County Board of Commissioners agreed Friday that Sheriff Sam Page and his department must make transparency a goal after the sheriff’s office’s insurance company dropped him as a customer.

Now, Rockingham County officials have less than a month to secure a new insurance provider for Page’s office, which they say will be an uphill battle and come at a higher price tag for taxpayers.

Chris Elliott, the county’s safety and risk manager, gave commissioners an update on Friday, saying he has no idea what a new insurance policy might look like for Page’s office, but he hopes to bring them something in the next week or two.

Page had declined to comment in detail on the matter after The News & Observer broke the news Tuesday that the sheriff’s office lost its insurance. But on Friday, he answered questions from the commissioners during an annual budget meeting.

The conversation got testy, with Page and county officials talking over one another, and Page defending his office and casting blame on Elliott.

But the commissioners weren’t letting Page off easy.

They first tried to broach the subject with Page by asking about his goals for the year. But before one of the commissioners could finish his sentence, Page interrupted and asked Col. Grey Smith, who runs the jail, for a document Smith had in a blue folder.

On it was the media statement Page released Wednesday in response to questions about the dropped insurance. The statement instead addressed a pending lawsuit filed by the family of Kyle Kepley, who died by suicide at the jail in 2022. Page said he took “any and all allegations” seriously, but added that it would be inappropriate to make any public comment about the case.

While preparing for litigation, The Travelers Companies, Page’s soon-to-be former insurer, provided information to Elliott that he says was the first he and county officials learned about several incidents at the jail.

Unreported incidents

Page said he and Smith had never been asked for any paperwork on incidents by the insurance company until May 20.

“I know we’ve asked for them,” said Charlie Hall, board chairman.

Page said the insurance company normally waits until litigation occurs to ask for a packet of information, but he will abide by their request and begin providing that information on the front end.

“Well, there’s some concern that I’ve got with moving forward; they’re asking for the same thing we have felt like we’ve been asking for for a good while,” Hall said.

Hall said he understood that the insurance company has more authority behind their request. But Hall said he wanted staff to know that the commissioners had been making the same requests and there’s been times they were still not informed of incidents at the jail.

Death notifications

Page defended his department, saying there was a method in place to notify the right people.

That includes the chief deputy alerting the county safety and risk manager and the county manager by phone, the jail administrator telling the Department of Health and Human Services, and filing a standardized death report form within five days.

The chief of detectives notifies the State Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Family is also notified, though he didn’t share who makes that notification.

Then Page and his spokesman, Kevin Suthard, work on notifying the public, Page said.

“In the past 25 years, there has never been a direct notification request made by our insurance carrier regarding any inmate death notifications,” Page said. “We rely on our risk and safety manager, Chris Elliott, to be our liaison with the insurance carrier for all notifications. With the most recent changes in our insurance carrier notification, we have agreed to honor those requests.”

Jail communication

Elliott defended himself, saying that in October 2023 he told Col. Alan Farrar that he only learned about a jail death from a news outlet asking him for information.

“And at that point in time, I told him there were issues with the state guidelines and issues with insurance that I could not perform,” Elliott said.

At the time, Page, a Republican, was running for lieutenant governor. He lost in the March primary.

Elliott added that communication got better after Smith took over the jail on April 2.

“Anything and everything that’s happened in jail has been done perfect,” Elliott said, of when Smith took over. “Stellar communication. And I can’t say that about what got us into this issue, standing here today.”

Page told Elliott he could have called him to ask if there were problems at the jail, but the commissioners immediately intervened, saying it’s not Elliott’s job to anticipate when something happens at the jail, and since Page and his staff knows about those incidents it is their job to tell Elliott.

Hall said he has been on the receiving end of Page refusing to provide information about jail incidents, and claiming it is a personnel matter. But he told Page that there is a way to notify them of incidents at the jail without violating personnel law.

One of the problems that Travelers uncovered while preparing for the Kepley lawsuit was an allegation that a jailer was having sex with inmates outside the jail, a response to a public records request by The News & Observer shows. That jailer has since been fired, but is a defendant in the lawsuit. It went unreported to county officials, an email from Elliott said.

“It is not the deaths at the jail, it is the failure of communication, but the communication has to come from you to the risk manager,” said Commissioner Kevin Berger, as Page tried to talk over him. “He doesn’t have to call you about an incident at your department.”

After Page left, the commissioners agreed to add to the public safety division’s mission statement “transparency” and “communication” to ensure that Page creates a goal to be more transparent going forward.

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