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Wednesday, 02 June 2010 19:56

County power struggle surfaces in Finn v. Ashe trial

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“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.

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