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Wednesday, 17 February 2010 17:10

Jackson sheriff sparks controversy, policy change with expenditures

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Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe may not have done anything illegal, but he’s stepped into the middle of a controversy in the run-up to his re-election campaign.

Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports. Ashe funneled money from the narcotics fund to youth sports teams without county oversight and outside of the accepted financial procedures followed by local governments.

While state authorities deemed the sheriff’s use of the money on sports was not illegal, the lack of oversight when making the donations violated General Statute 159-25(b), according to the Local Government Commission.

Jackson County has changed the way it administers its narcotics fund, effective immediately, in response to a letter County Manager Ken Westmoreland received from the Local Government Commission on Feb. 9.

“We had a conference with the sheriff, and we addressed to him that it was somewhat out of the norm in how we provide fiscal control, and he agreed very quickly to conform,” Westmoreland said.

The issue was initially brought to light by the Asheville Citizen-Times, which reported that Ashe had used the money from a tax on narcotics seizures in an unorthodox manner, based on financial records obtained through a public records request. Ashe spent more than $12,000 from the narcotics fund on youth sports between July 2007 and January 2009.

In addition, the sheriff used $20,000 from the fund to pay for a carpet in the sheriff’s office and $400 to get himself listed on a national “who’s who” list.

The investigation also discovered that Ashe rode a Harley Davidson seized from a drug dealer while off duty.

The N.C. Department of Revenue assesses a tax on illegal drugs seized by law enforcement. Sheriff’s and police departments get 75 percent of what is collected from drug dealers on cases they investigate.

According to Westmoreland, state and federal statutes governing the narcotics fund dictate the money must be used for drug crime prevention and enforcement, but allow room for interpretation. In Buncombe, Haywood and Macon counties, the money is used strictly for law enforcement expenses, and each expenditure is approved by county commissioners.

For the past 8 years, that has not been the case in Jackson County. Sheriff Ashe has used the money mainly to fund youth sports activities to keep kids off drugs. The spending was included in the county’s audit each year, and auditors have never cited it as an issue for concern.

The controversy surrounding the use of the narcotics fund hinges more on the sheriff’s failure to adhere to accepted accounting procedures than on his use of the money for youth sports.

The fund was administered by Capt. Steve Lillard, who signed the checks. The county’s finance department only saw the expenditures after the fact. County Finance Director Darlene Fox said the practice made her uncomfortable.

“I was only seeing the transactions after they occurred and not prior to,” Fox said.

Westmoreland said he didn’t stop the practice sooner largely because it had never caused problems.

“I don’t know where it originated. The implication has always been that this is a fund that amounts to a gift from the state or federal government to the sheriff’s office that can be used at the sheriff’s discretion,” Westmoreland said. “It has never really been an issue.”

Sharon Edmundson, director of fiscal management for the Local Government Commission, expressed her department’s concern over the practice in a letter to Westmoreland.

The narcotic tax revenues amount to a public fund held in an official county depository, so the county should treat spending from the fund the same way it treats expenditures from any other department, the letter stated.

In essence, checks were being written from county coffers without prior budget approval and with only one signature — and that lone signature was a sheriff’s captain and not an authorized finance officer.

“We recommend that the checks used to disburse these funds be signed by two county employees or officials authorized to sign checks and duly appointed by the Board to serve in that capacity,” the letter stated.

Since receiving the letter the county has closed the separate account for the sheriff’s fund and changed the policies governing its use. Now any expenditure will have to appear in the budget for approval by the county board and all the checks will be signed by Westmoreland and Fox.

Mountain or mole hill?

Now that the county has changed its procedures, Westmoreland believes the issue is settled except in the case of Sheriff Ashe’s use of the motorcycle. County logs showed the sheriff had put 1,326 miles on the motorcycle since its seizure.

Westmoreland has asked the sheriff to submit an official letter stating how he used the vehicle. The sheriff would be required to pay taxes on the mileage he put on the vehicle for personal use.

“It is an issue but then again it’s not an issue of great importance because if every mile was personal use, we’re still looking at less than $50 of tax money,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland also said as a constitutional officer, Ashe is exempt from the county’s employee policies and is, technically, always working on the public’s behalf, making the separation between public and personal use difficult to determine.

Edmundson’s letter addressed the issue of the motorcycle separately from the accounting issues.

“We also recommend that the County consider the payroll implications of the Sheriff’s personal use of a seized motorcycle; personal use of anything other than a clearly marked public safety vehicle or the clearly authorized use of an unmarked vehicle is generally a taxable benefit,” the letter stated.

Ashe did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment on the issue, but he defended his practice of using the narcotics fund for youth sports to the Asheville Citizen Times. Ashe admitted that the expenditure on the “who’s who” list may have been a mistake, explaining that he made the decision to raise the county’s public profile.

Some of the county commissioners in Jackson County are standing by the sheriff. Commissioner Tom Massie has been particularly outspoken in that regard.

“I can’t say it loud enough. I think it’s making a mountain out of a molehill when you’re talking about a man in control of a $50 million budget,” Massie said.

Massie also spoke to the motorcycle issue.

“It struck me as peculiar, the motorcycle thing, and perhaps indelicate,” Massie said. “But quite frankly, I accept the sheriff’s explanation that he was evaluating it for patrol use.”

The questions raised by the investigation and the response from the LGC centers mainly on whether Ashe used the money appropriately as an effort to prevent youth drug use or inappropriately to build a personal following with public money. Ashe is one of the highest paid sheriffs in the region, making $105,571 after receiving a significant raise from the county board last year.

The sheriff is up for re-election this year will face at least one opponent, Robin Gunnels, a Sylva business owner with a background in law enforcement.

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