Guildford County, NC Pioneers Automated Redaction

Interview with Jeff Thigpen,Guildford County Register of Deeds and Champion of the Public Trust

Extract: Guilford County’s Register of Deeds website states, “We are committed to be the best organization, a role model, by using the most advanced technology and innovative business practices.” How does your office put that commitment into practice?

Thigpen: We continually assess our business practices based on available technology to serve our customers effectively and efficiently. We replaced our 23 year old computer system; implemented e-recording; redacted social security numbers and personal information; created an online marriage application and are implementing a program for online requests for birth, death, and marriage certificates. In addition, we were awarded the 2010 North Carolina Association of County Commissioner Ketner Award for Productivity Efficiencies for our employee cross- training program that led to increased employee value, better customer service, and reduced our overall budget $400,000.

Extract: In 2007, you partnered with Business Information Systems (BIS) and Extract Systems to become the only county in North Carolina to initiate an automated redaction software system. What drove your decision to redact historical land records – do you foresee North Carolina mandating the redaction of public records in the future?

Thigpen: There was an overwhelming need to redact social security numbers and personal information on separation agreements. Business Information Systems (BIS) and Extract Systems created a software solution that saved time, effort, and energy in identifying and verifying the information as well as speeding up the process of redaction. It was a no brainer. Within two years of our effort, the North Carolina General Assembly added language in the NC Identity Theft Protection Act to allow for more wholesale redaction of personal information on public records.

Extract: You’ve been an outspoken critic of MERS for its practice of “robo-signing” mortgages and loan documents. How has this practice affected Guilford County and its residents? 

Thigpen: We found 6100 land record documents filed by LPS/Doc X submitted by names like Linda Green with 15 different signature variations representing 10-20 banks and mortgage services. The practice of “robo-signing” in my opinion is the equivalent of fraud, forgery, and the clear violation of notary laws. This practice is unfair and deceptive and creates uncertainty in the legitimacy of the land records. In April 2013, I testified at the sentencing hearing of LPS/DocX President Lorraine Brown in US District Court in Jacksonville, Florida. She’s now in jail.

Extract: The 2012 lawsuit you filed on behalf of Guilford County against MERS and several other entities was dismissed in May 2013. How did your constituents react to the law suit?

Thigpen: There is no doubt - I’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback every step of the way. Most constituents and legal observers recognize our complaint as legitimate and well-written. They also see that I was a witness in the federal sentencing hearing of DocX President Lorraine Brown who is now in jail. I typically see people shake their heads in disbelief when they hear the Guilford County case was summarily dismissed by the NC Business Court.

Extract: What advice would you give other local land records officials who wish to pursue a more proactive stance to protect the condition of their land records?

Thigpen: I would encourage all local land records officials to reject the proposition that they are “ministerial” officers with little power. These officials must never forget they carry the public trust and their constituents come to them at the most important moments of their lives. In the time of Too Big to Fail and in the aftermath of the Great Recession—conscientious and knowledgeable Registers are needed more than ever. Citizens have depended on Register of Deeds to protect their interests: in who owns what, by establishing that parties are who they say they are, and for establishing plainness and fair dealing in democracy and commerce through accurate land records for hundreds of years. We need to protect this legacy for hundreds more.

Extract: Guilford County is in the heart of North Carolina’s Piedmont region. Tell us some special things about living in the Piedmont region.

Thigpen: Guilford County and the Piedmont region are at the center of North Carolina. We are home to the ACC Basketball Tournament, NC Wine Festival, NASCAR racing teams, Wyndham PGA Golf Tournament, and the Woolworths International Civil Rights Museum. You can drive to the Smoky Mountains to our west or to the beach to the east within a couple of hours. This area is a great place to live and raise a family. With the Tar Heels and the Panthers, there is no doubt I love calling North Carolina “Home”.

Extract: Guilford County is steeped in American history. What’s the most significant public document preserved in your land records repository?

Thigpen: The original land transaction from May, 1771 is the most significant document in the Registry. The second most significant document will always be “the next document” as long as I’m Register of Deeds.

Extract: Tell us about your most interesting day on the job.

Thigpen: A customer with terminal cancer visited my office. She only had weeks to live and needed to get her estate in order. A somber conversation ended up being hopeful, inspiring and even funny; words were shared about the value in living a life of courage and integrity rather than dwelling on fear and death. I was humbled and in awe listening to her talk about life and death and those words touched me in ways I’ll remember the rest of my days.