After former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford took the stand today in his own defense against federal corruption charges, he faced lengthy questioning from his own attorneys, followed by a barrage from the prosecution. He denied ever taking bribes from illegal video-poker operators.
During questioning from his attorney, Stephen Lindsay, Medford flatly denied ever being paid bribes by any of the video-poker operators who testified last week that they’d given thousands to Medford in return for protection of their operations.
Hunched over the microphone in a dark brown suit, hand gripping the witness stand, Medford said he’d only met Jerry Pennington, the former operator for Henderson Amusement in this area, twice. Both times, he said, he rebuked Pennington for being too close to former reserve Capt. Guy Penland (who’s also on trial), who, he felt was being used by Pennington.
“I felt that it didn’t look right [Penland riding with Pennington] and that he [Pennington] was taking advantage of Guy,” Medford told the court.
He recalled that he was especially angry after learning that Penland had been signing off on video-poker registrations. As an unpaid volunteer, Medford said Penland wasn’t authorized to carry out such a task.
Medford said that he had made a rule prohibiting operators from taking each other’s business, and had told Jim Lindsey, of Mountain Amusements, that he couldn’t go through with such a step in convenience stores owned by businessman Imran Alam.
“I said that he wasn’t to be sent back to my office or brought to me — I wasn’t going to change my mind and I didn’t have time for it,” Medford said. He added that he’d bust video-poker machines giving illegal cash payouts when he got complaints about them, but due to a lack of funding, didn’t regard the matter as a high priority.
However, Lindsey and Alam, who both testified last week, said they bribed Medford on more than one occasion. Alam in particular said that after giving $3,000 to Medford and the same amount to former Lt. Johnny Harrison (who’s taken a government plea deal), Medford relaxed his usual rule and let new machines come in.
Medford’s attorney Lindsay also showed the jury pictures of Medford’s $350-a-month apartment in Weaverville and revealed that he was supporting his grandchild as well.
The former sheriff also asserted that while nonelection-year fundraising golf tournaments were “put on for me,” and that the profits (in cash) went to him, the sums ranged from $2,500 to $3,000 and went to charitable causes — causes, he said, he’d funded out of his own pocket before the golf tournaments came along.
“If someone came in the office and needed some help,” Medford said, he used the money to assist residents with things such as heating oil or clothes for their children.
But later, under cross examination from the prosecution, Medford said “the money wasn’t mine, it went to Sheriff’s Office,” and asserted it was all spent on charity. He never stayed long at the golf tournaments, which included teams sponsored by video-poker operator,s and said he wasn’t aware of their involvement.
“I just said ‘Hello’ and thanked everybody,” he noted. “I had to get back to work.”
The prosecutors also showed records from tournaments in 2005 and 2006, which had raked in between $9,000 and $11,700 in profits. Last week, Frank Orr, who managed the tournaments for Medford, said that on a good year, a tournament would make around $11,500.
“What is the reason for the disparity here, that you say you only got $2,500?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey Ellis asked Medford.
“I can’t recall ever getting more,” Medford replied.
The prosecution also pointedly questioned Medford about specific cash deposits going into the accounts of him and his girlfriend, Judi Bell. Medford said his sources of money were legitimate, coming from injury settlements with the county, from cashing in his 401(k), from lines of credit and a credit card. This, he said, accounted for much of the money he spent at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, including his more than $30,000 in gambling losses in 2005 and more than $50,000 in 2006.
“I had credit cards, I had a signature loan — I could get money from anybody,” he said, clarifying that he meant friends and family members.
During repeated questioning about specific transactions, however, he shook his head and said he couldn’t recall them.
“Would you say you have a gambling addiction, Mr. Medford?” Corey Ellis asked towards the end of today’s questioning.
Lindsay objected, but Judge Tim Ellis (no relation to the prosecutor) overruled it.
“No,” Medford answered. “For my first eight years [in office] I hardly did it. But I got old and sick; I wanted to do something else.”
The prosecution resumes its questioning of Medford tomorrow in the federal courthouse.
— David Forbes, staff writer