Five years ago, Pete Bradley sparked a controversy that rocked Buncombe County and sent reverberations as far as Raleigh. But the ensuing messy scandal raised more questions than it answered, and a lawsuit by Bradley that might have shed some light on allegations of bribery, payoffs and other misconduct by state Division of Motor Vehicles enforcement personnel was settled out of court on May 4, with all parties signing an agreement that prohibits them from talking about any aspect of the case. Ever.
Bradley, the former Woodfin police chief, filed the suit in response to his firing in 2002, after a blackmail letter concerning his sex life was leaked to the media. In the suit, Bradley maintained that both the letter and the firing were retaliation for his blowing the whistle on illegal doings at the DMV.
The case crawled through the legal system for more than three years. But last month, a judge’s ruling finally cleared the way for a public airing of the charges. At the time, Bradley seemed eager to take the stand. “I look forward to my day in court,” he told Xpress. “This will be an opportunity to get the truth out — and believe me, there’s a lot of people out there who don’t want to see this stuff exposed.”
Yet mere weeks later, the former police chief apparently changed his mind, and a scandal that began with a roar seems to have ended with a whimper. One of the biggest investigations of a North Carolina law-enforcement agency in recent memory resulted in no criminal charges, and the agency itself (the DMV’s Enforcement Section) no longer exists.
A tangled trail
It all began in 2000, when Bradley — then a DMV enforcement officer — made his allegations to the SBI, prompting an investigation that eventually encompassed 13 Western North Carolina counties and led to a federal grand-jury probe. In 2002, while the investigation was still in progress, Gov. Mike Easley merged the Enforcement Division with the State Highway Patrol.
Meanwhile, Bradley had taken a job as Woodfin’s police chief. But just three months later, the blackmail letter (part of the SBI report, which was sealed from public view) was leaked to the media. At the time, the SBI maintained that only three people had been privy to the report: Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, former Haywood County District Attorney Charles Hipps (now deceased) and Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford. And six days after the blackmail letter was published in The Independent Torch, a freewheeling local newsletter, the Woodfin Board of Aldermen fired Bradley, accusing him of insubordination and improper use of town funds.
Bradley then filed a wrongful-firing suit against the town of Woodfin, the Woodfin Board of Aldermen and then Mayor Homer Honeycutt. The lawsuit asserted that Woodfin officials had violated Bradley’s right to free speech and had made libelous statements about him. At the time, Xpress reported that two months before he was fired, Bradley had secretly recorded Honeycutt telling Bradley that if he didn’t resign, something “bad” might “come out” (see “Woodfin: Small Time Scandal or the Tip of the Iceberg?” March 6, 2002 Xpress).
The lawsuit also named Gary Ramsey, Bradley’s supervisor at the DMV, as a defendant. According to Bradley, Ramsey was a key figure in the DMV corruption scandal. Ramsey maintained his innocence throughout the investigation, and no criminal charges were ever brought against him. Nonetheless, the DMV removed him from his position in 2002. Bradley’s lawsuit asserted that Ramsey was behind the release of the blackmail letter.
The whole truth and nothing…
Both the grand jury’s findings and the SBI report remain sealed. But Bradley’s civil litigation would have forced Ramsey and others to publicly testify. And unlike a criminal proceeding, a defendant in a civil suit cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. The testimony would also have addressed Bradley’s claim that Ramsey had violated federal anti-racketeering laws while working for the DMV.
On April 15, U.S. District Judge Lacy Thornburg issued a 33-page ruling that paved the way for a trial, denying numerous requests by the Woodfin defendants that he throw out the case for lack of merit.
In his ruling, Thornburg wrote: “The Court finds the Plaintff has put forth sufficient evidence of a retaliatory action by the defendant Ramsey. … The Court further finds the Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Blackmail letter was written by the defendant Ramsey.”
Now, however, there will be no trial, and no exploration of the blackmail letter’s origin or how it came to be leaked to the media. And the racketeering allegations against Ramsey will remain unproved charges — unless someone violates the gag order.
Shortly before the start of the Board of Aldermen’s May 17 meeting, Pete Bradley walked into the Woodfin Town Hall carrying a briefcase and a boom box. When asked why he was there, Bradley replied, “I’m here to close the case.”
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Bradley stood at the microphone and thanked Woodfin residents for their support. He then asked Mayor Jerry VeHaun for permission to play a song that, in Bradley’s words, “pretty much says the whole story. It’s an American song; it speaks about the freedom of speech, the First Amendment, this great country of ours and the men who fought to give us our rights. … It says it all.”
The mayor consented, Bradley turned, and (after some nervous fumbling) pushed the “play” button, and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” crackled over the speakers. Bradley then thanked the assembled officials and sat down amid a wave of warm applause.
Shortly before the meeting ended, Alderman Ron Dayton said, “Mr. Bradley, I wish you and your wife the very best.”
“Thank you, Alderman Dayton,” Bradley replied.
“I’m glad we can put this behind us and go in peace,” said Dayton.
And after a brief pause, Bradley stated firmly, “I am in agreement, sir.”