Former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford and three of his officers were arrested Dec. 13 and charged with extorting money from illegal video-poker operations, among other crimes.
Arrested along with Medford were former reserve Capt. Guy Penland, former Lt. Ronnie Eugene “Butch” Davis and former Lt. John Harrison. All four were charged with conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to commit money laundering, five counts of mail fraud, and obstruction of state and local law-enforcement, including making false statements.
On Dec. 17, a federal judge ruled that Medford and two of his deputies will remain in jail—Harrison and Medford in Caldwell County, Davis in Burke County—until their trial, possibly in March. Penland’s fate was to be decided in a Dec. 18 hearing. Medford has pleaded “not guilty.”
A press release from the U.S. attorney’s office charges that Medford and his deputies “deprived the citizens of Buncombe County of their right to their honest services, performed free from deceit, favoritism, self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment and conflict of interest, by participating in an alleged conspiracy related to illegal video-poker machines” during Medford’s time in office.
The indictment comes in the wake of an extensive federal and state investigation into illegal video gambling in this area. During Medford’s 12 years in office, numerous charges of corruption were raised (see sidebar, “A Controversial Past”).
Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey, who has headed the board since 2001, called the incident “a real tragic case” that could damage the county.
“If the charges are true, this is a black eye on county administration, it’s a black eye on the commissioners, and it’s a black eye for the Sheriff’s Office. This is going to increase people’s cynicism about government and law enforcement,” Ramsey told Xpress. “I hope these charges aren’t true. Bobby Medford did a lot of good for this county. I voted for him. But if this is true, then I made a mistake.”
Ramsey said he’d heard rumors about such activities since Medford left office last year, but not while he was still sheriff. At press time, District Attorney Ron Moore was in Raleigh and had not responded to requests for comment.
If convicted, the men could face severe penalties. The extortion, mail-fraud and money-laundering charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. The obstruction of justice charges could result in up to five years prison and a $250,000 fine.
At Medford’s arraignment, former Capt. Tracy Keith Bridges plead guilty to helping transport cash from the operation to local stores. He then converted it to money orders and deposited it into Medford’s re-election fund.
The indictment alleges that Medford and the other officers abused their official powers from October 2000 to December 2006 and “provided business owners and/or video-poker operators with benefits and services ranging from nonenforcement of video-poker laws to the falsification of community-service records on behalf of a video-poker operator’s agent charged with criminal offenses.”
But the charges don’t end there. The document also states that Medford and the officers gave video-poker operators access to sealed information used by grand juries to make a decision about indictment, transported and placed the machines, gave some of the operators deputy’s badges, and ran a license plate check on an FBI agent who was investigating illegal video-poker operations in Shelby. In addition, the indictment states that Davis called operators to warn them about impending search warrants.
The mail-fraud charges stem from the men’s allegedly providing registration stickers for the illegal machines.
According to the indictment, the conspiracy made money for Medford and the others in a number of ways: golf tournaments, direct demands for cash, and receiving money in exchange for persuading store owners to place the machines in their businesses. The indictment also alleges that the extortion helped support Medford’s gambling at Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee, often accompanied by deputies driving county vehicles during working hours. In 2006 alone, the sheriff is said to have racked up net losses of $54,142.
The indictments resulted from an ongoing investigation into Medford’s ties to video poker. When he left office in 2006 after losing the election to Van Duncan, a county audit of Medford’s evidence rooms revealed missing drugs, guns and money.
Xpress has repeatedly reported in the past on lax enforcement, poor record keeping and undocumented machines, as well as alleged cash payouts in the video-poker industry in Buncombe County (see sidebar for details).
Although the indictment alleges that Medford’s extortion activities stretched back six years, few local officials criticized Medford during that time, and no charges were brought against him in connection with any other matter, though there was no shortage of controversy on a variety of issues.
Sheriffs in North Carolina enjoy considerable autonomy, including complete control over hiring and firing personnel and managing their operations. No local or state agency or official oversees sheriffs’ activities. But because county government sets salaries and oversees departmental budgets, it can call for an internal audit. Ramsey said that at no point during his tenure as chair, beginning in 2001, “did any one of our internal auditors come to us and say, ‘Medford’s blocking us.’” However, Ramsey noted that the county is hiring another auditor to provide additional oversight in the future.
And despite the various controversies surrounding Medford during his time in office, said Ramsey, “Relations with county government were good; we got along well. The last time commissioner elections were held, some of [Medford’s] top officers would write, telling people to vote for some of the Democratic commissioners because they’d been so good to the Sheriff’s Department.”
Meanwhile, Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower, who had praised Medford during his tenure, said “this is an example of the system working—he’s been caught,” and that the development showed the larger problems with gambling in general. “The Bible advises us to hate the sin, not the sinner,” Mumpower told Xpress. “He [Medford] will be held fully accountable and if this is true, then he’s betrayed the people he served.”
Mumpower said he’d found Medford helpful in dealing with drug issues in the past and admitted “I liked the sheriff a lot actually.” He added that he found it ironic that “he gets addicted at a state-sanctioned form of gambling [Harrah’s] and then has to feed his habit by dealing with an illegal form of gambling. That’s the one thing at the heart of all this: gambling. That’s the real problem here.”
Last June, a report by County Manager Wanda Greene asserted that the county could save $750,000 a year by cutting 11 positions that “many sheriff’s [department] employees say sit around.” Medford snapped back, “It’s a damn shame that this thing [an e-mail containing Greene’s criticisms] ever hit the county commissioners’ office.”
The pressure mounts
In February, federal agents raided Davis’ apartment, seizing $18,000 in cash. And this summer, the U.S. attorney’s office indicted 21 people involved with Henderson Amusement Co. of Inman, S.C. Two deputies tied to Medford were found to be on Henderson’s payroll, and the company was bribing two county sheriffs in exchange for protection. Owners James and Barron Henderson had their charges reduced as part of a plea bargain. Charges against the two deputies were later dropped.
The investigation has involved multiple agencies, including the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the State Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from the Buncombe, Cleveland and Rutherford County sheriff’s departments and the Shelby, N.C., Police Department, the indictment notes.
Ironically, Medford signed a 2002 letter from the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association supporting the bill banning cash payouts from video-poker machines.
In a separate but related indictment, Weaverville businessman Jack Shepherd was also charged with operating illegal video-poker machines.
For more information about the case—including the full indictments against Medford, his deputies and Shepherd—see www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles