“The only reasonable verdict here is for Sheriff Ashe,” Patrick Flanagan told the jury. “He did not commit any wrongdoing here.”

The eight-person jury in the Bryson City federal courtroom agreed, taking slightly less than an hour to clear Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe on five complaints that alleged he used his position and influence to interfere with the business operations and free speech of David Finn, owner of Blue Ridge Public Safety. Blue Ridge Public Safety is a private security force hired by upscale developments in the greater Cashiers area to patrol their communities.

The case pitted two of Jackson County’s leading law enforcement officers against one another in the federal district courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger.

Finn’s lawyer, Frank Contrivo Jr., spent three days calling witnesses, reviewing subpoenaed phone records, and otherwise building the case against Sheriff Ashe.

Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan took only a few hours to offer a defense.

His message was simple: The only evidence that Ashe had interfered with Finn’s contracts was circumstantial, and Ashe’s own testimony that he had not used his office to put Finn under duress was credible.

Finn first sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his position to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale.

The complaints alleged that Ashe, working in concert with a lawyer for an influential group of Cashiers-area residents, inappropriately shared information that led to a slew of investigations into Finn’s business, which holds security and patrol contracts worth more than $1 million.

The day before Flanagan called his defense witnesses, Contrivo withdrew the leading claim driving the case thus far –– that Ashe had actively participated in ruining the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to John Hale for $1.5 million.

With that claim off the table, the case came down to whether Ashe interfered with six existing Blue Ridge Public Safety contracts and on whether he infringed on Finn’s First Amendment right to free speech.

According to Finn, Ashe was motivated to disrupt the business of Blue Ridge Public Safety because of a disagreement between the two men over proposed legislation that would have given company police broader powers, including jurisdiction on U.S. highways adjacent to the communities they patrol.

An important component of Contrivo’s case for Finn was the extent to which Ashe communicated with Cary-based Lawyer Mark Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee.

Seifert testified that he was hired by Cashiers property owners in 2006 to investigate Finn and that his goal was to put Blue Ridge Public Safety out of business.

Contrivo alleged that Ashe and Seifert “were singing a duet” as they worked in concert to manufacture claims against Blue Ridge Public Safety that hurt the business and ruined contracts. He showed through phone records that Ashe and Finn had had extensive contact with one another –– nearly 150 calls amounting to 30 hours of conversations.

“What we’ve seen in the past three days is a snapshot of the nightmare experienced by Mr. Finn’s business,” Contrivo told the jury in his closing argument.

Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, presented an argument that was repetitive, process oriented and clinical. He focused on the fact that not one witness testified to Ashe’s direct participation with Seifert or even to the fact that Ashe had spoken ill of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

“What we didn’t hear at all –– there was no evidence, no testimony –– was that the sheriff has ever made a derogatory comment about Mr. Finn or his company,” Flanagan said.

In contrast, Contrivo at times raised his voice to cajole the jury and at other times spoke in a barely audible whisper to contribute to the gravity of the moment. He tried to paint a picture of Ashe as an expert at behind the scenes deal-making who managed to get away with a crime by staying at arm’s length from it.

“We hear about a man who was turf conscious, jealous of his power, and jealous of what he perceived as a threat to his power,” Contrivo said, pointing at Ashe.

Contrivo asked the jury for $200,000 worth of damages to cover Finn’s lost contracts and legal fees. The jury wasn’t convinced. They cleared Ashe on each charge and entered zeroes in the spaces on the verdict sheet that asked for award amounts.

After the trial, Ashe said the verdict upheld his faith in the system.

“This has been a long process that needlessly burdened the taxpayers of our community,” Ashe said. “The quick verdict of the jury attests to what we have asserted from the beginning of the matter.”

Ashe also indirectly expressed his dismay that he had spent so much time over the past two years embroiled in the civil suit.

“There is no business more important than the people’s business, and I am proud of the confidence that the good people of Western North Carolina have shown in me and our deputies,” Ashe said. “I look forward to many more years of public service, and it’s time to get back on task.”

Neither Finn nor Contrivo responded to requests from comment on the case after the trial, so it is not clear whether they plan to appeal the verdict.

Flanagan said a potential appeal could take two forms. In the first scenario, Contrivo could make a motion to Judge Reidinger to set aside the jury’s verdict in his final judgment, which will be entered in the next few weeks.

A second approach would be for Contrivo to file an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. within 30 days of the final judgment being entered.

“Putting Mr. Finn out of business is not a duty of the Jackson County sheriff. Is that a fair statement?” asked Frank Contrivo Jr., the lawyer representing David Finn.

“That statement or thought has never crossed my mind,” said Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.

On the witness stand on one side of the courtroom sat Sheriff Ashe, arguably the most powerful politician in Jackson County. On the other side, next to Contrivo, sat David Finn, whose company police officers at Blue Ridge Public Safety have kept order in the upscale district of the Sapphire Valley for the past 10 years.

The two men, once allies, are now locked in an unusual power struggle that has led to a civil trial now playing out in front of a jury in a federal courtroom in Bryson City.

Ashe is the homegrown, hard-working sheriff from Sylva in the midst of his second re-election campaign. Finn is a Florida transplant with a long career in private law enforcement who has built a successful business enterprise patrolling private developments in the unincorporated communities around Cashiers.

Finn sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his office to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale. After Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan, failed to convince the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence, the civil suit landed in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger last week.

At stake in the trial are damages that stem from a series of tort claims. The sheriff could end up paying Finn a lot of money if the eight-person jury decides he misused his office to injure Finn’s business dealings. But for the people of Jackson County, the trial has broader implications.

Testimony in the case has revealed that a power struggle between Finn and a small group of influential Cashiers property owners developed into a full-scale donnybrook that to one extent or another pulled in Sheriff Ashe.

Former Jackson County Sheriff Jim Cruzan, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, N.C. Sen. John Snow, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, and Jackson County sheriff candidate Tim O’Brien have all been named during the testimony of witnesses called by Contrivo.

One of the key issues raised by the case is the extent to which southern Jackson County functions independently, and how Sheriff Ashe has incrementally sought to increase his influence there since succeeding Cruzan.

The question in the trial is relatively straight-forward: Did Ashe use his position as sheriff to hurt Finn’s business and eventually to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety? The question for the county is more complicated: How can law enforcement in Jackson County, which at this point depends on the cooperation between sheriff’s deputies and private police, function while their leaders are at war?

Where it began...

By all accounts, the relationship between Ashe and Finn was a good one back in 2002. Finn, who had purchased Blue Ridge Public Safety in 1998 and acted as its police chief since 1996, backed Ashe in his bid to take the sheriff’s office from his former boss, Jim Cruzan.

“Sheriff Ashe had called me and asked if I would support him, and I told him I would and I did,” Finn said.

Ashe won the primary against Cruzan and went on to become the Jackson County Sheriff.

For Ashe, the tension between the two men began just after the election, when Finn tried to get him to issue traffic enforcement cards to his private police officers. Ashe said he refused on advice from county attorneys, and Finn got angry.

When Contrivo asked Ashe to characterize the relationship between the two men in 2003, Ashe was reserved.

“I would say good, but there was conflict,” he said.

The relationship was good enough that when Ashe’s former boss and erstwhile opponent offered to buy out Finn in 2003, Finn called Ashe.

Finn and Ashe remember that telephone call differently.

“It was clear to me he did not want me to go through with that sale,” Finn said.

Finn said Ashe told him Cruzan was under investigation by federal authorities for the misappropriation of funds. Finn said he decided later — largely on the basis of the phone conversation — to call the deal off.

Ashe, meanwhile, said Finn called him to belittle Cruzan and scoff at the $600,000 offer.

Either way you look at it, the moment was significant in that it showed how the origin of the dispute between the two men could be traced back to their cooperation as political allies.

Cruzan had lost to Ashe in a bitter sheriff’s race and was working to get a foothold at the south end of the county by buying Finn’s business. Finn testified that he met Cruzan clandestinely on a dead-end street to sign the papers, which included a confidentiality clause and a trial period during which Finn could back out.

The fact that Finn would consult Ashe on his decision is a sign that the two men wanted to preserve the professional equilibrium they had created during the election.

Also in 2003, Ashe supplied Blue Ridge Public Safety with a glowing recommendation to the North Carolina Company Police Association, which was later cited when the security company was named best in the state during the association’s award ceremonies.

Between 2002 and 2006, Blue Ridge Public Safety grew dramatically. The business Finn bought for $150,000 in 1998 took in more than $1.2 million in gross receipts in 2006, largely due to his ability to corral the numerous property associations in that part of the county into lucrative security and law enforcement contracts.

According to Finn, his relationship with Ashe broke down over a political disagreement.

In 2006, as president of the N.C. Company Police Association, Finn was advocating for a bill in the General Assembly, The Company Police Modernization Act, that would have given private security forces like his jurisdiction on state and county roads adjacent to the properties they patrolled.

Ashe, co-chair for the legislative committee of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association “vigorously opposed” the measure.

In early 2007, Contrivo alleges that Ashe met with a group of Cashiers property owners who had had disagreements with Finn. According to Finn, that meeting led to a change in Ashe’s disposition.

“The first change I noticed was March 5, 2007,” Finn said.

On that day Ashe instructed his officers not to call Blue Ridge Public Safety for backup anymore, a practice that had resulted in over 1,000 collaborations over a 10-year period.

From that point, Finn’s complaint alleges, Ashe used his office and his deputies to hamstring Finn and the personnel of Blue Ridge Public Safety then later worked in conjunction with the group in Cashiers to sabotage the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

Finn lined up a buyer for the company –– an Asheville man named John Hale –– in May 2007. In July, Hale rescinded the offer to pay $1.5 million for Blue Ridge Public Safety.

The lawsuit alleges specifically that Ashe’s office generated and shared arrest reports that implicated wrongdoing at Blue Ridge Public Safety and that those reports became the basis for investigations of the company that led to the scuttled sale.

“The investigations instigated by defendant James M. Ashe were based upon groundless and false accusation and were the specific reason the prospective purchasers did not perform under the contract,” the complaint alleges.

The case

There were three major flashpoints in the relationship between Ashe and Finn, according to the testimony of the two men.

The first, according to Ashe, was Finn’s demand that the sheriff issue traffic enforcement cards to his staff in return for support rendered during his election race against Cruzan. Ashe refused to sign the cards, which Cruzan had signed regularly according to Finn, and Finn was furious.

For Ashe, that moment opened the gap between the two men, and it got a whole lot wider in 2006 when the second flashpoint took place. Finn, as president of the N.C. Company Police Association, pushed the passage of legislation that would give his people limited jurisdiction on U.S. highways, like N.C. 64. As co-chair of the legislative committee for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, Ashe and 88 other sheriffs around the state vehemently opposed the measure and it was killed.

Ashe readily admits his opposition to the bill but denies retaliating against Finn because he was president of the N.C. Company Police Association.

The third flashpoint is murkier. According to Contrivo, Ashe began looking for ways to shut Finn down. Having been approached by a group of Cashiers property owners who had complaints about Finn, Ashe, allegedly, supplied arrest reports to their lawyer, Mark Seifert, that helped to generate a number of cases against Finn. The cases were investigated by the oversight bodies that regulate private law enforcement services over a two-year period, and Finn was issued two minor cease and desist orders. None of the investigations showed that Finn had abused his power or made illegal arrests, as some of the allegations contained in the incident reports contended.

An important component of Finn’s case is the extent to which Ashe communicated with Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners (COSH) and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee (SACCC). Seifert, an attorney based in Cary, N.C., has testified that he came to the cases in 2006 as a result of his friendship with Cashier’s property owners Robert Tillery of Sterling, Va., and Paul Hilliard of Lafayette, La.

As lawyer for COSH and SACCC, Seifert spent two years pursuing complaints before state oversight bodies in order “to bring proper regulatory oversight to BRPS.”

“I wanted the Attorney General to shut down Blue Ridge Public Safety,” Seifert said.

“Was that your goal?” Contrivo asked him.

“Indeed,” Seifert said.

“Did you discuss that with Sheriff Ashe?” Contrivo said.

“I did,” Seifert said.

Seifert filed seven separate complaints over a two-year period with the Police Protective Services Board, the Company Police Association, the State Bureau of Investigation and the North Carolina Alarm Systems Licensing Board.

Included in the filings were incident reports generated by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office that included complaints against Blue Ridge Public Safety. Ashe claims he merely offered up public records and documents when they were requested, most significantly when he was served a subpoena by Robert Tillery’s attorney.

Tillery was suing Finn over a dispute about a gate security contract at Golf Course Estates, a private residential community in Sapphire Valley.

According to Contrivo, though, Ashe essentially generated the arrest reports to fuel the flames of Seifert’s complaints to the Private Protection Services Board, on which Ashe served.

Contrivo supports that claim by pointing out that Ashe’s office never released incident reports for any of the other law enforcement bodies that functioned in the county over the same period of time.

Citing Ashe’s cell phone records, Contrivo showed that Ashe and Seifert exchanged 150 phone calls that represented more than 50 hours of conversation between the two men. In addition, Contrivo has pointed out that despite two years of hard work, Seifert never managed to get Blue Ridge Public Safety in anything like serious trouble.

Just doing his job

Ashe’s attorney, Patrick Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, is painting a different picture of his client’s role in the struggle between Finn and the Cashiers property owners.

Having established that Ashe is a hard-working sheriff with deep roots in the community, Flanagan argued that the relationship with Seifert was basically one in which a public servant obsessed with details was hounded and cajoled by an over-aggressive lawyer with an agenda.

Flanagan has also pointed out that Ashe recused himself of any role on the PPSB that involved Finn.

During his testimony, Ashe called Seifert “annoying” and seemed exasperated by the repeated references to their cell phone conversations, many of which Ashe said were missed calls and phone messages.

Flanagan is expected to present Ashe’s defense on Tuesday afternoon (June 1), and the jury will likely reach a verdict by the end of the week.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe proved he could survive a tough race during the Democratic primary, defeating challenger Robin Gunnels by nearly 700 votes on the unofficial count.

Ashe may have another tough race in November, but on Tuesday night he could celebrate holding off a crowded field and a strong challenge from Gunnels, a former employee. Ashe also had to stave off the efforts of a third-party political action committee en route to winning his third consecutive Democratic primary nomination for Jackson County Sheriff.

In the end Ashe’s popularity in Jackson County and his firm resolve not to enter into dialogue with his critics proved decisive in the hotly contested race.

Ted Coyle, a Caney Fork resident, said the ugly tactics employed by a third-party political action committee from the Cashiers area prompted him to vote for Ashe.

“I was kind of disgusted by the politics of that race coming out of Sapphire and I’m not for private law enforcement on public roads by any stretch,” Coyle said.

The sheriff’s primary was far from typical this year. After Gunnels emerged as an early challenger in the race, his business was burned in a case still under investigation as arson. Gunnels did not blame Ashe or his supporters for the fire, but he insisted it was politically motivated.

On Tuesday night, after the votes were totaled, Gunnels still rued the incident.

“With the whole fire business it took a couple of weeks to get that cleaned up and get back out there,” Gunnels said. “I don’t want to blame the result on anything, but it was a real issue for us.”

Ashe looked vulnerable because he received a controversial pay raise during the recession and had to withstand allegations of questionable financial transactions involving an account from narcotics seizure money.

The contest heated up considerably when a group of Cashiers residents, led by Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn, formed a political action committee aimed at unseating Ashe.

Ashe refused to enter into a back and forth with his critics, instead electing to run advertisements that included personal testimonies of supporters. The tactic seemed to pay off in Jackson County, where Ashe has been one of the most popular and widely recognizable political figures in recent years.

Ashe did not immediately return a request for comment before the news deadline.

Jackson County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

Jimmy Ashe: 2,290

Robin Gunnels: 1,572

Marty Rhinehart: 140

Radford Franks: 116

*The winner will face competition from two unaffiliated candidates in the fall.

Other sheriff races:

Haywood County sheriff

Democratic primary

Bobby Suttles*: 3,720

Dean Henline: 966

*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.

Macon County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

George Lynch: 965

Richard Davis: 776

Ricky Dehart: 114

The Jackson County Sheriff’s race is hot and getting hotter. While a controversial pay raise and allegations of questionable financial transactions are dogging incumbent Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, the possibility of a politically-motivated arson at challenger Robin Gunnels’ business has provided a sinister sub-plot to the campaign. Now the contest has taken a new turn with a group of Cashiers residents forming a political action committee aimed at unseating Ashe.

Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff has spent more than $2,000 on an ad campaign that reiterates allegations against Ashe that originally surfaced in newspaper accounts in recent months.

A primary organizer behind the political action committee is David Finn, the owner of Blue Ridge Public Safety, a private security business that patrols housing developments in the southern part of the county around Cashiers.

Finn sued Ashe in 2007, but he says the still unsettled lawsuit isn’t the motivation for the ad campaign the committee has launched.

“It’s no secret that I don’t like Jimmy Ashe,” Finn said. “It hasn’t always been that way. I’ve known him for 20 years, and I supported him in two elections.”

Finn said he could not comment on the lawsuit except to say he feels the trial will justify his stance against Ashe in the election.

“I’m looking forward to the trial, so the public can understand my change of heart,” Finn said.

Ashe has repeatedly said he will not engage in mudslinging with his challengers, and he said he could not comment on the lawsuit, either.

The suit itself provides a compelling backdrop to the election, because it sets up the rift between Ashe and Finn in the context of an up-county, down-county divide. In it, Finn alleges that Ashe used his office as sheriff to sabotage the $1.5 million sale of Sapphire Valley Public Safety as an act of political retribution.

The issue began innocently enough with Finn and Ashe on opposing sides of a policy debate playing out in Raleigh.

In 2006, as president of the North Carolina Company Police Association, Finn was advocating for a bill in the General Assembly that would have given private security forces like his jurisdiction on state and county roads adjacent to the properties they patrolled.

Ashe and the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association “vigorously opposed” the measure, which Ashe’s legal counsel concedes in the case file.

But Finn’s complaint goes on to allege that Ashe used his office and his deputies to harass Finn and the personnel of Blue Ridge Public Safety, then later sabotaged the sale of Sapphire Valley Public Safety. Finn had lined up a buyer for the subsidiary company, receiving a formal offer in May 2007.

In July, the buyers rescinded the offer.

The lawsuit alleges that Ashe used his influence to get the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate Blue Ridge Public Safety for wrongdoing — even though none had occurred — and that the investigation scuttled the sale.

“The investigations instigated by defendant James M. Ashe were based upon groundless and false accusation and were the specific reason the prospective purchasers did not perform under the contract,” the complaint alleges.

The case is scheduled for a trial in May.

From the beginning, Finn’s counsel has pushed for a jury trial while Ashe’s lawyers have asked that the case be dismissed on a lack of merit. In February, a judge declined to dismiss the case and ruled that it could proceed to trial.

 

Why form a PAC?

While political action committees are common in national politics, they are rare locally. People who spend money in local races usually donate to the candidate of their choice rather than form their own PAC with their own agenda.

In creating a political action committee, Finn said he is attempting to shed light on a pattern of abuse that has characterized Ashe’s leadership.

“I think the revelations in print media show Ashe’s misuse of tax money and raise some unanswered questions,” Finn said. “Without that attention, I think it would still be business as usual at the sheriff’s office.”

Ashe has come under fire for misappropriating revenue from drug seizures and for using a Harley Davidson seized from a drug dealer for personal use.

“The purpose of the PAC is to throw these things out there to get some answers,” Finn said. “We’re not supporting any candidate. I have my personal preference, but the PAC is not supporting anyone.”

Finn claims that he and his PAC are speaking out on behalf of a broader group of people who are reluctant to go on record for fear of incurring Ashe’s ire. The rules of PACs require any donors of more than $50 to be named in campaign finance reports. The PAC’s treasurer, John Bayley, said he preferred to let Finn speak for the group. The other two named contributors, Gary Ramey of Cashiers and Jeff Scott of Glenville, could not be reached for comment.

“A lot of people want to contribute under $50, because there is a real concern if the sheriff finds out,” Finn said.

The PAC has run ads in the Smoky Mountain News, The Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle and The Sylva Herald.

Ashe’s supporters have seen the ads as a smear campaign in what has become a dirty race for the sheriff’s office.

John Burgess of Sylva said seeing the negative ads in the newspaper have reinforced his support of Ashe.

“He really is the only candidate that is qualified to do the job,” Burgess said. “He has run a clean, no-slander campaign and is a leader in the community. I’ve never even heard of any of these other guys, but I do hear how nasty a campaign they run.”

The person who may have the most to gain from Finn’s ad campaign is Democratic candidate Robin Gunnels, who has emerged with Ashe as the frontrunner in the May primary.

Gunnels said the ads don’t have any new information, and he doesn’t think they’ll help his campaign.

“Those are things that came out last year and they’re just getting brought back up,” Gunnels said. “It’s just giving people the opportunity to see it and reflect on what’s right and what’s wrong in the county.”

Gunnels said the bigger issue in the election is how the Jackson County Sheriff will deal with the southern part of the county, where private security firms patrol expensive developments that are unoccupied for large portions of the year in the greater Cashiers and Glenville area.

Gunnels and Ashe clashed during a candidate’s debate in Cashiers last Tuesday over that subject.

Ashe has said one of his top priorities is to create a new substation in the south central part of the county that would help bolster security and enhance cooperation in those communities.

But Gunnels said Ashe had a policy of not responding to alarm calls in that area, something he routinely did when he was at the sheriff’s department.

Both Gunnels and Ashe have their power bases in the northern part of the county. Gunnels lives in Cullowhee and runs a business in Sylva, while Ashe is a highly visible political figure also in the north. Between now and May, both men will be trying to convince every voter they can that they have what it takes to keep the whole county safe.

The primary winner won’t be out of the woods, however, as two unaffiliated candidates are planning to get on the ballot through a petition process. One of them, Tim O’Brien, has worked for Finn at Blue Ridge Public Safety and lives in Cashiers.

Voters in the Democratic Primary in Jackson County must choose which of the four candidates profiled below should advance to the November election. Two other candidates, Mary Rock and Tim O’Brien, plan to run in November as unaffiliated candidates, but won’t be on the ballot for the primary.

 

Jimmy Ashe, 50 • Sylva resident, Jackson County Sheriff

Jimmy Ashe has been the sheriff of Jackson County for eight years, but has worked in the office since 1981 when he started his career as a jailer. Ashe served in a range of positions and worked his way up to Chief Deputy in 1997. He was elected to the office of Sheriff in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.

Ashe said his goals for the coming term include opening a new south central district substation to better serve the Caney Fork, Little Canada and Tuckasegee communities. He also wants to create a sheriff’s advisory committee with representation from each community in the county.

“Being from here and educated here, I know the community,” Ashe said. “This is my home. I know the needs then, now, and in the future.”

Ashe said he chose to run again because he is young and has more to offer the county.

“To settle for anything less than experience, education, background, and commitment would be going back in time in an ever-advancing society,” said Ashe.

For more information: www.asheforsheriff.com

 

Robin Gunnels, 45 • Cullowhee resident, business owner/WCU police officer

Robin Gunnels is a small business owner with 15 years of law enforcement experience. Gunnels worked in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office for seven years, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He left after Ashe made him a jailer and reduced his pay.

For the past eight years, he has run his own business, Custom Truck Covers in Sylva, and worked part-time as a police officer at Western Carolina University.

Gunnels said he is running for sheriff because he wants to incorporate his experience as a businessman with his experience as a law enforcement officer to provide better service to the citizens of Jackson County.

“The experience I’ve gotten in retail sales and service has given me a different view of the public,” Gunnels said. “That combined with what I learned in law enforcement gives me a good foundation for the work as sheriff.”

Gunnels said he would like to re-focus the existing personnel at the sheriff’s office in areas of special expertise –– like elder abuse, cyber crime, and drug enforcement –– to optimize service. He also said he was committed to changing the impression that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is unfriendly.

“None of the officers look happy,” Gunnels said. “When you’re out dealing with the public, you have to go out there with that attitude that you’re helping people.”

For more information: www.vote4gunnels.com

 

Marty Rhinehart, 49 • Sylva resident, excavator/floor tech

Marty Rhinehart is the owner of an excavating business and also works as a floor technician for Westcare at Harris Regional Hospital. Rhinehart has worked for both the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

Rhinehart said he is running for sheriff because he wants to establish closer ties with the community.

“I believe if you dig deep into your community and serve the people of your county, the people will help you any way they can,” Rhinehart said.

Rhinehart likened Jackson County’s problem with drug dealers to a berry patch attracting bears.

“Drug dealers are like an old bear. They will hang around a berry patch, but if you take away that berry patch, that bear will leave,” Rhinehart said. “Jackson County has been a hub for drug dealers for years.”

Rhinehart said he intends to lead the sheriff’s office by example if he is elected.

 

Radford Franks, 55 • Savannah resident, bail bondsman

Radford Franks has spent the last 10 years working as a bail bondsman and bounty hunter in Jackson County. Prior to that he spent 20 years working as a builder in the southern part of the county.

Franks said he is running for sheriff to make the office more accessible to the people of the county. He intends to implement a system that will redistribute sheriff’s deputies more equitably throughout the county, particularly to the Cashiers/Glenville area. Franks also said he intends to meet regularly with community groups throughout the county.

“I am not saying I can solve all your problems. I can’t,” Franks said. “But I am saying I will meet with the residents of each community, in their respective community centers, to discuss the problems or concerns they have for their community.”

Franks also said he would not tolerate preferential treatment in his administration.

“I believe everyone deserves fair and equal treatment regardless of race, political views, or social level in the county. I will strictly enforce this policy and hold my deputies accountable for their actions.”

 

Mary Rock 42 • Sylva resident, bail bondsman

Born in Macon County to parents from Jackson County, Rock has spent her professional career between the two counties. After serving with the Military Police from 1986 to 1988, Rock attended Western Carolina University and received her basic law enforcement certification. The 42-year-old Sylva native has worked as a bail bondsman in Jackson County for the past 12 years.

Rock said she wants to bring professionalism and equity to the sheriff’s office.

“Since I was a child I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t think was the best way to run that office and I waited a long time to see if anyone would change that,” Rock said. “I decided this year that I wanted to do it myself.”

Rock said running unaffiliated was a way of de-emphasizing the political nature of the sheriff’s office. She said her experience has shown her that political influence can affect prosecution in Jackson County.

“It seems to be a highly political position and it should be a service position,” Rock said.

 

Tim O’Brien 40 • Cashiers resident, private investigator

O’Brien has worked as a private investigator for the past two years. After growing up in Franklin, O’Brien got a degree in criminal justice administration from Western Carolina University and then spent eight years as platoon leader of a military police unit. He was honorably discharged in 1999 with the rank of 1st Lieutenant. O’Brien later served as a patrol officer in the Highlands Police Department, a detective with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, and a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation assigned to Western North Carolina. He has 17 years of law enforcement experience.

O’Brien said he wants to bring a new level of professionalism to the sheriff’s office that will take politics out of it.

“I have no political ambitions beyond being the Sheriff of Jackson County. I do not intend to serve on numerous political boards; my intention is to spend my time serving and protecting the citizens of Jackson County,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said his experience as a business owner and law enforcement officer make him particularly qualified for the office of sheriff.

“I feel my seventeen years of law enforcement experience in patrol, investigation, and administration, combined with my business experience, makes me uniquely qualified for the office of Sheriff.

A fire at the business of a Jackson County sheriff candidate last week has cast a shadow over the race.

Robin Gunnels, owner of Custom Truck Covers in Sylva and a Democratic candidate for sheriff, believes the attack on his business was no coincidence.

“There’s things that led up to this that lead me to believe it was politically motivated,” Gunnels said.

The fire originated in a garage where Gunnels stored his campaign materials, which were destroyed in the blaze. With his signs gone and his business shut down, Gunnels is wondering how he will afford to run the rest of his campaign for sheriff. Gunnels insurance does not cover fire.

The Sylva Police Department confirmed last week that the fire is under investigation for arson.

“The fire is suspicious. There’s no doubt about that,” Sylva Fire Chief Mike Beck said.

The fire was discovered in the middle of the night on Sunday, March 21, when Sgt. George Lamphiear noticed water running out from under garage doors at Custom Truck Covers on East Main Street in Sylva. Lamphiear looked closer and saw heavy smoke inside the business. He called dispatch, and the Sylva, Cullowhee, and Savannah fire departments responded.

“The fire was about out by the time the fire departments got there, because it had taken out a water line or two,” said Beck. The fact that the fire had burned through the water line may have saved the building.

Gunnels said he got a call from Lamphiear notifying him his business was on fire. By the time he arrived at the scene, the damage was done.

Gunnels said he has no idea who started the fire, but after weeks of receiving harassing messages at his home and business, he is sure it is connected to the sheriff’s race.

Gunnels was once a lieutenant with the Jackson Sheriff’s Office but left the force soon after Ashe came into office eight years ago.

Gunnels estimates he lost $150,000 of property that include his election materials and parts he sells at his shop. Because many of the parts Custom Truck Covers sells were plastic, almost nothing was salvageable.

“I’ve lost a lot of equipment and I’m just trying to salvage what I can,” Gunnels said.

Gunnels said the fire would not deter him from pursuing the sheriff’s race, and he thanked the Sylva Police Department for their fast response.

“George was on top of his job. He saw something that wasn’t right, and he acted,” Gunnels said.

The Sylva Police Department has advertised a $2,500 reward for information.

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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