Former Mecklenburg County elections director Bill Culp, whose long public career in government and politics disintegrated after he was convicted of taking more than 120 bribes in a yearslong voting-machine conspiracy, has died.
He was 78.
According to his obituary, the Concord native passed away on Aug. 2 in Beaufort, S.C., where he had moved after serving 20 months in federal prison during the late 1990s for his bribery conviction. His family says Culp had long battled Alzheimer’s disease.
Culp, a Vietnam War veteran and former teacher at West Charlotte High School, was an outspoken and media-savvy fixture of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s political scene for almost three decades.
A Democrat, Culp expanded voting registration across the county and saw himself as a bipartisan source of information for candidates from both parties.
Culp served as elections director for 28 years before his sudden retirement in 1998. He blamed it on the rise of partisan politics throughout the county.
The truth soon surfaced, and Culp was indicted on federal corruption and wire fraud charges. According to government prosecutors, Culp had accepted $134,000 in bribes and kickbacks from a voting-machine salesman and repairman over a period of years in return for awarding millions of dollars in county contracts. In one iteration of the scheme, the repairman overbilled the county so Culp would receive a $25 kickback from every machine serviced.
After his indictment, Culp blamed his actions on what he said was his addiction to marijuana, which he had begun smoking in Vietnam. Skeptical prosecutors dismissed the purported cause-effect as Culp’s maneuvering to be allowed into a prison drug-treatment program that would cut a year off his prison time.
He was sentenced to 30 months, served less than half of that time behind bars and spent six months in a Charlotte halfway house. He was released in March 2001.
Culp and his wife of 56 years, Deena Owen Culp, soon moved to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where they lived for the last 20 years of his life.
He told The Charlotte Observer in a 2005 interview that any addiction problems he may have had were — like politics — a part of his past.
“Let’s just say I started smoking pot in Vietnam in ‘67, up until six months before the dam broke (and he was indicted),” Culp said. “I think I was psychologically addicted. I showed up for work everyday and did my job.”
Throughout his life, Culp was an active civic and church volunteer. According to his obituary, Culp took part in the sit-ins at the Woolworths in Greensboro and remained a lifelong advocate for civil rights.
In his 2005 interview with the Observer, Culp said he was no longer involved in politics and was in good health after experiencing heart problems in prison.
“I have a great doctor, he says I’ll live to 100. Make sure you print that for my political enemies to see,” he quipped.
Asked if he still had enemies, Culp said yes.
“I had political enemies all through my career,” he said. “I made the mistake of giving them an opening against me. That was my fault. I accept responsibility for that.”
Culp is survived by his wife, two children, six grandchildren, a sister and a brother.