At a press conference this afternoon, Sheriff Van Duncan reacted to the conviction yesterday of his predecessor, Bobby Medford, on federal corruption charges. Duncan asserted that his office is busting illegal video-poker operators, has changed how reservists and volunteers are handled, and that evidence-room procedures have tightened.
“The case has not really had much effect on our day-to-day operation here,” Duncan told the assembled media. “The case has been somewhat of a distraction. It has been quite sad to watch and sad for former Sheriff Medford’s family members, as well as thinking that will be the end thoughts of his 12 years of being sheriff in this county. But we have moved on.”
He said that his office relies on public trust “and hopefully nothing of this extent will ever occur again in this county. It is tough to move past this point and ask folks to trust again, but we think by what we’re doing every day … we’re building that trust back up, and we’ve come a long way.”
While Duncan mentioned that rumors about gambling had been around for some time, including while he worked in the office under Medford (until 2004), “knowing something or hearing about it and being able to prove it are two very different things.”
Convicted alongside Medford was former reserve Capt. Guy Penland. Questions were raised in the course of the trial about the powers given to reserve deputies and volunteers and the allegation that illegal video-poker operators were able to acquire special deputy cards and badges.
Duncan said the system for reservists “has changed very drastically. Anyone here that’s a reserve officer has the mandatory minimum training expected from a law-enforcement officer,” adding that “they’re certified and sworn through the state before they ever receive an I.D. card that says they’re a deputy, or get one of our badges. That’s controlled very strictly.”
After video-poker machines were banned last July, Duncan said, his office has made charges and confiscated machines. He added that the matter is a high priority “because of the history. We get a call, we address those things.”
He also said that improvements have been made in how evidence is kept and tracked, after an audit at the end of Medford’s tenure revealed missing guns, drugs and money.
“Everything now is brought before a professional evidence tech,” Duncan noted. “Everything now is put on our computer system [and] bar-coded; it’s then tracked and put into the evidence room. We have random inspections or audits from the county. They do that randomly now.”
Duncan flatly denied that he’d approached the FBI or any other outside agencies about activities in Medford’s office before the election.
“No. I felt very strongly once I decided to run and try to change the administration of the sheriff’s office that I needed to deal with service-related issues, that I needed to give a reason why I would be a better sheriff,” he said. “I was afraid anything else would be seen as petty politics or sour grapes.”
But he said he had fully cooperated with the FBI while in office.
Though he took the stand in the trial, Duncan explained that “I didn’t really understand why I was called by the defense” and that giving testimony hadn’t been trying.
When asked if he’d been approached by video-poker operators, he said, “The easiest way to answer that is no. I never had a quid pro quo where someone offered me money in return for some illegal service to be operated.” But, he added, “anything that transpired after I took office and the FBI came in with their investigation, I gave them full disclosure with anyone that may have talked with me after the fact and that’s not something I need to discuss here.”
As the assembled media was preparing to leave, Duncan revealed that he had “mixed feelings” about the Medford trial.
“He did do some good things — and his legacy of 12 years is going to be remembered for this,” he said. “But do you have to hold people accountable? Absolutely.”
Click below to hear Duncan talk about restoring the public’s trust in the Sheriff’s Department. Duncan talks here and here about the ongoing federal investigation into illegal gambling in Western North Carolina.
-—David Forbes, staff writer