Opening statements in Medford trial: Very different portraits

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the federal corruption trial of former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford made their opening statements yesterday afternoon. Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards (pictured at right) asserted that “the evidence will show that [Medford] and others extorted using their office for their own gain and defrauded the citizens of Buncombe of the fair dealings they deserved,” while Medford’s attorney, Stephen Lindsay tried to paint a picture of Medford as a good cop “who trusted the wrong people.”

With the aid of several charts laying out the details of the alleged conspiracy involving Medford and several of his deputies (including former reserve Capt. Guy Penland, who’s also on trial) exchanging money for favors with illegal video-poker-machine operators, Edwards gave an overview of his forthcoming case, saying that he will unveil the details of the crimes with witnesses (including three of Medford’s former deputies who accepted plea deals), bank statements, financial records and more.

“Medford ran a criminal conspiracy for gain, for himself and others close to him —  and you’ll hear from some of them, including [former Lts.] Johnny Harrison and Butch Davis,” Edwards told the jury. Originally charged with Medford, both men later took plea deals.

He added that after a 2000 North Carolina law limiting the number of video-poker machines to those already in operation “made it a very lucrative business here,” Medford’s annual fundraising golf tournaments grew to include mostly video-poker-machine operators. He also said that while there were only 365 machines in Buncombe County in 2000, the sheriff’s office gave out 1350 registration stickers over the coming years.

“Clearly, something was going on here,” Edwards noted, and he said there was evidence that video-poker operators were routinely given special deputy’s badges, and that in one case, a badge was given to a video-poker operator the same day they wrote a $1,000 check to Medford’s campaign — and that those were only some among many favors that Medford and some of his deputies did for the operators.

Medford, wearing a dark suit, silently observed Edwards’ statement, his hand on his chin.

In contrast, Lindsay’s opening remarks tried to portray Medford as a talented and hard-working investigator who, given no video-poker-regulation money by the state, had little to do with enforcing the machines and delegated the matter.

“He turned it over to someone he trusted — Johnny Harrison — and went back to matters he had to give a higher priority,” Lindsay said. Medford “was a respected detective, but he had his failings as an administrator — he trusted too much.

“If you’re looking for criminal activity here, you won’t find it in Bobby Medford. He was always a sheriff for, by and of the people,” Lindsay added.

Lindsey said that the video-poker law, which also banned cash payouts, was doomed from the start, painting an almost-rosy picture of the role the machines played.

“‘Mom and pop’ shops couldn’t keep things running selling just peanut butter: They needed the cash provided by video-poker machines. It allowed small restaurants to put good meat on the table,” Lindsay said. “They could grow their business — the great American dream.”

Nonetheless, he said that Medford had warned video-poker operators at a public 2000 meeting that they “better not have any fights at their establishments” and had tried to discourage turf wars. Edwards earlier said that Medford sought such stability as part of the favors he gave the operators.

But Lindsey drew a stern rebuke from Judge Tim Ellis when he tried to cast doubt on the government’s witnesses.

“They can go, ‘Say what we want you to say and we’ll let your children go,’” Lindsay asserted of what prosecutors can offer witnesses who cooperate.

Ellis cut off Lindsay and asked, “Do you have proof of that?” to which Lindsay replied that he did. But later, after the jurors had cleared out, Ellis took Lindsay to task, asking him, “If you meant to imply the government was suborning perjury — that’s a very, very serious charge.”

Lindsay said that he did not, but Corey Ellis, another federal prosecutor in the case, said that he felt the words had implied that.

Ellis seemed to agree: “If someone had said that to me when I was a prosecutor, I’d have been up on the ceiling.” Lindsay then apologized to the prosecutors, Ellis and the court, asserting that he was only try to convey the circumstances faced by those who had taken plea deals.

“I came at it from the wrong end, your honor. I apologize.”

Meanwhile, Penland’s attorney, Paul Bidwell, said that his client was a hardworking man who’d dreamt of being a deputy and worked hard to achieve that (Lindsay had told a similar story earlier, noting that Penland’s career had ended with a DWI conviction, but that he continued to volunteer his help) and that, since he was a volunteer, was put to work on video-poker registration (as the state didn’t provide the sheriff’s office any extra funds to do so).

In that capacity, Bidwell said, Penland introduced Jerry Pennington, a “heck of a salesman” for machine operators Henderson Amusements, to people he knew around the county.

He did note that Penland had run an undercover FBI agent’s license-plate number at Pennington’s request, but said it was an innocent mistake that Penland now regrets.

“If he could go back in a time machine … ,” Bidwell began, before the judge cut him off and cautioned that he was not to argue his case in his opening statement, merely frame his evidence. He replied that his evidence would vindicate Penland.

“There was nothing illegal in this [Penland’s actions] — he was duped,” Bidwell said, adding “anything that Bobby Medford may or may not have done, Guy Penland is not a criminal.”

The trial resumes tomorrow at 9 a.m., with the beginning of witness testimony.

— David Forbes, staff writer

illustration by Adam Altenderfer

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