Top guns: Sheriff, district attorney candidates clash

Put your hands up: Candidates took questions from attendees at a forum hosted by the Council of Independent Business Owners. Candidates seated from left to right: Mike Bustle, Van Duncan, Ben Scales, Todd Williams. Photo by Cindy Kunst

In coming weeks, voters get to determine who will lead Buncombe County’s most powerful law enforcement and legal agencies.

In the race for sheriff, incumbent Democrat Van Duncan faces a challenge from Republican Mike Bustle. And in the district attorney contest, Democrat Todd Williams is vying with unaffiliated candidate Ben Scales. The contenders debated for the first time at a Sept. 25 event organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County. The next day, they held a rematch at a forum hosted by the Council of Independent Business Owners.

Over the course of both events, the candidates staked out different positions on a wide variety of issues, setting up battle lines for what’s likely to be an intense last month of the campaign season.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from those debates.

Buncombe County sheriff

Duncan and Bustle clashed over the budget, school safety and law enforcement priorities.

A native of Spruce Pine in Mitchell County, Duncan was first elected Buncombe County sheriff in 2006. He succeeded Bobby Medford, who was later convicted of extortion, money laundering and illegal gambling. Duncan said he inherited an office that was in “disarray” and has since turned it into “an office known for its best practices.”

As proof, he cited a range of national awards and honors the department has received under his leadership.

But Bustle, who was born in Buncombe County and served as chief of the Lake Lure Police Department from 1998 to 2006, said that he thinks the sheriff’s budget has gotten too big. He wants the department “to do more with less.” He added: “You have to be frugal with taxpayer funding.”

Since he took the reins, the department’s budget has gone from roughly $25 million to $32 million. An increase in officers, training and equipment is responsible for the growth, he said. The department grew from about 360 employees to 430 employees, said Duncan, defending the changes as a good investment necessary to keep the area safe. “I feel I’ve been very fiscally responsible,” he said.

However, Bustle questioned Duncan about a 2011 decision to “give upper staff $13,000 in raises, ignoring the rank and file.”

Duncan replied that he gave the raises after learning that his majors were being paid less then the county’s pay scale recommends. He also said they deserved the money for taking on an “increasing work load” because he had reduced the overall number of administrators. At the same time, Duncan took a voluntary 5 percent pay cut “because it was hard times” for the county and the local economy, he said.

In turn, Duncan asked Bustle specifically what he’d cut in the budget and if he’d eliminate programs or staff.

“I’m not about eliminating services at all,” Bustle answered. “I want to increase services. … I’m not looking to cut any position. But I see many things that can be controlled.”

Bustle alleged that some officers are being allowed to drive patrol vehicles “where they shouldn’t be driven.” He added, “Some of the officers have never owned a personal car — what does that tell you? Things like that can be changed.”

In terms of school safety, Bustle also charged that Buncombe County schools “are far more dangerous than any of the schools in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, … and these are much larger cities. And yet statistically, we’re far exceeding them on issues of drugs and violence.”

Duncan didn’t disagree that some of the statistics are high, but he disagreed with Bustle’s conclusions. Crediting school resource officers with doing a particularly good job of reporting problems, Duncan said, “More interacting means more reporting of incidents, and I think that’s what you’re seeing. I think our schools are probably the safest in North Carolina.”

Bustle insisted that “the most serious crime in our county is the violence in our schools. It cannot be allowed to fester any more.” He said the other biggest local law enforcement challenges include identity theft and meth labs.

The sheriff’s department has confiscated $28 million in drug-seizure money over the years, said Duncan, who reported that most meth in Buncombe County is being produced in Mexico rather than local labs. The use and dealing of narcotics is the county’s biggest problem, driving a wide range of other criminal activity, from breaking-and-entry to murders, said Duncan. “Almost without exception, there was a drug or narcotic nexus that was driving those crimes,” he said.

The department works with a long list of partners and schools “to do everything we can do to prevent it,” Duncan said.

But Bustle insisted he could do better. “We must look ahead. We cannot look backwards,” he said. “I can protect you.”

Buncombe County District Attorney

In May, Williams beat longtime incumbent Ron Moore in the Democratic primary, winning 68 percent of the vote. And at the September debates, he emphasized that voter endorsement as well as his nine years of experience as a public defender.

Scales also claimed broad community support. He mounted the largest write-in campaign in recent history this spring, gathering more than 7,900 signatures to ensure his name would be on the fall ballot as an unaffiliated candidate. Scales touted his political independence, saying he “will enforce the law without regard to politics.”

In their dueling cases to voters, each candidate emphasized that he’d make major changes to the DA office, which is charged with handling all criminal cases filed in the local superior and district courts.

Under Moore, the DA’s office had “an image problem” and an attitude of “stuff ‘em and ‘cuff ‘em,” said Scales. He would bring “compassion” to the position, he said, focusing resources on prosecuting violent offenders rather than those accused of nonviolent crimes. “We need to save the handcuffs for people who are actually hurting other people,” he said.

Williams also emphasized the need to “bring a new perspective to the office” to restore a sense of integrity. But he challenged Scales to explain what he meant by “nonviolent crimes,” worrying that it could mean he wouldn’t prosecute those convicted of drug dealing, DUIs or statutory rape.

Scales replied that those crimes would be vigorously prosecuted, saying they have clear victims and “harm the fabric of our communities.” (See Oct. 1 update at the bottom of this post for more on this interaction).

In his private practice, Scales focuses on representing defendants charged with marijuana violations. He said that what he meant by “victimless crimes” is “the private personal use of cannabis, and … medical marijuana.” Scales said that his office would not prosecute those charged with marijuana crimes under specific circumstances: if the amount of marijuana in position is less than felony levels, intended for “private, personal use [by] an adult who is otherwise law-abiding.”

Other marijuana infractions “would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Scales said. He added, “Prescription pills are a way worse problem than marijuana and that would be a strong emphasis in my office.”

Scales also asserted that under Moore, “marijuana prosecutions unfairly target black people.” Scales said he’d change that and work to improve the office’s reputation with minorities.

Taking a more traditional position, Williams countered, “The law is black and white. … In regard to marijuana, the law will be enforced.” But he did agree that “the bigger problem is pills.”

Both candidates also agreed to support the work of alternative judicial programs such as drug treatment courts and veterans court. Williams said he thought the creation of “a mental health treatment court is a fantastic idea.”

Scales said he thinks the DA is “doing good now” on prosecuting cases of child abuse. “The people who are brought up on child abuse charges are the lowest type of people we’ll come across,” he said.

Williams said he’d like to see the creation of a child-advocacy center to help ensure children are protected and abusers face justice. Buncombe is the only county in the state that doesn’t have such a center, he said.

Asked about their attitudes on pursuing the death penalty, the candidates staked out similar positions.

Scales said he’d keep the option on the table, but added, “The possibility that an innocent person could be put to death should give everyone pause.”

Williams noted that “the death penalty is part of our law” and said he “will swear to uphold the law.” But Williams added that as DA, he would also have a responsibility to “be responsive to the community’s values.”

UPDATE Oct. 1:

In the phrasing of his question to Scales about what he considers a victimless crime at the Sept. 26 CIBO forum, Williams stated: “Many crimes are victimless, such as many DUIs … all failure to register as sex offender offenses, statutory rape. Many crimes don’t necessarily have a victim or you have a victim that has consented such as a drug sale.”

A video of the statement (see below) has drawn criticism from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Association to Protect Children. In a letter to Xpress, Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, writes: “It is a DA’s job to prosecute crimes against our daughters. When law enforcement officials secretly harbor attitudes like these, it’s chilling enough. Todd Williams just told you to your face how he thinks. Believe him!”

Williams responded to the criticism in a statement to the Asheville Citizen-Times: “There are no victimless crimes,” he’s quoted as saying in the paper. “My opponent is running on a message of not enforcing laws he calls victimless crimes. I was trying to make a point that there are no victimless crimes, to make the point that I will enforce our laws. I asked a gotcha question and it got me instead.”

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Video of the statement embedded via the Ustream channel.

Watch video of the entire CIBO candidate forum here:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Video embedded courtesy of Davyne Dial Ustream channel.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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11 thoughts on “Top guns: Sheriff, district attorney candidates clash

  1. bsummers

    It’s pretty clear that Todd Williams got caught trying to set up a gotcha question for Scales, and that it was merely poorly set up. He wasn’t asserting that those crimes are truly ‘victimless’, he was using them to demonstrate that Scales intention to not enforce marijuana laws could lead down a dangerous road.

    I don’t necessarily agree with him on that, but I don’t for a second believe that he meant to say that statutory rape or drunk driving are victimless crimes that shouldn’t be punished. That’s absurd. Anyone who watches that video & still insists that that’s what he really meant is obviously lying to you.

    I’ll take a good man who happens to make campaign mistakes over a polished political hack any day.

    • Ben Scales

      I’m sorry I just saw this. Do you mean to say I’m a “polished political hack”? Wow. My first foray into politics, and I’m already a “hack.”

      • bsummers

        No. I was speaking of politicians in general. I have not seen enough of you to call you a ‘hack’, nor do I think anyone can be called a hack during their first campaign.

        That being said, I have been really disappointed with your campaign from the beginning. This should have been an easy win for the Democrat who had the gumption to oust Ron Moore. Instead, we have Democrats fighting amongst themselves and wasting money and energy rather than concentrate on the fights that really matter. If we lose any of the NC House or Commission races because of it, well… that will be a real shame.

        I’ll be voting for Todd Williams.

        • Ben Scales

          Gumption!?! I had the gumption to gather 10,000 signatures. I’ll put my pathway to the ballot up against Todd’s any day, especially the part where he was the Drew/Veronica team’s 4th or 5th choice to run against Ron.

          Democrats fighting amongst themselves? What is this, democracy?

          Your reason for opposing my candidacy perfectly illustrate the problem with our two-party system, that values the party over the person, that turns elections into WWE matches, that leads to the theft and vandalism of my yard signs.

          The “machine” appears to have shut Todd down. He’s missed at least one radio appearance, one candidate forum, and he’s ducked a couple of others. It’s clear they don’t want him talking any more. Instead, they’re circling the wagons, surrounding Todd with “endorsements” and hoping upon all hope that the faithful in the party will stay loyal to the chosen one in the race against someone who, frankly, may appeal to them more.

          • bsummers

            Ben, I have good friends who support you and think you would make a fine DA, and I’m really not taking a position about which of you would do a better job. My concern is solely about focusing our energies to confront the folks that are doing such damage to our city, county and state. An intramural battle over an office that should have been settled months ago is an unnecessary distraction, IMHO.

            Have you considered at all the possibility that your campaign for the DA’s office could sap energy from the effort to oust Tim Moffitt, for example?

            You obviously want the office badly, & you’re right – that’s democracy, and it’s your right to pursue it. But the rest of us have the right to decide that your desire for that office doesn’t rise to level of warranting the loss of much bigger races. I don’t think my reasons for supporting Todd over you illustrate anything other than that.

            10 days to Election Day – good luck, and get everybody you know out to vote!

          • Good luck to Ben Scales and Mike Bustle. What comes across is that they are the most qualified and will work for everyone and not the select few. Let’s make this happen.

  2. Andrew Brooks

    When Duncan took over the budget was 18.5 million not 25 million. He raised it to 25 million the first year and I would not call a sheriff that spent a $30,000.00+ donation to the department on needless new badges and dinning out with friends and colleagues fiscally responsible. Lets get real, if BCS was doing their job as an effective deterrent kids would not be so bold to bring their worst behaviors to class resulting our #1 and #3 statewide ranking the past to years for school violence. So, meth from Mexico is why our meth lab busts went from an average of 16 per year the three years prior to Duncan to only an average of 3 per year since Duncan has been in charge? Then how is it other nearby counties in NC still achieve double digit enforcement? So Mexican meth is why all the meth heads have stopped cooking in our unincorporated areas? Give me a break. In 2006 Duncan publicly recognized Domestic Violence (D.V.) was a major problem but it took 5 D.V. related homicides last year before finally putting a program of prevention together-one that failed to involve the judiciary as a stakeholder no less. We are #4 in the state for the most D.V. Good job Sheriff! But hey, who cares about the facts?

  3. mg massey

    and everyone conventinetly forgets those 15 rape kits without names that were left when Medford got what he deserved. I also seem to remember a man who happened to be well know in the “elite ” community ” arrested for child porn and he got 10 months.Poor defendants prosecuted while the rich abuse children seems skewed. MY own daughters sexual abuse was not prosecuted .I cannot wait to see what these men with ties will do next. Probably what they have always done..not one darn things for the rights of women and children. A liberal town where women don’t really have the rights we should.. This town is such a mendacious load of hyperbole that it’s difficult to understand why no one speaks up. OH , I know, they are too busy drinking beer. The male brain with a tie around it’s carotid artery is not my idea of intelligence. Till all abuse of women and children and domestic violence is aggressively prosecuted in this Podunk good old boy pseudo liberal town.. nothing will be right. Get real Asheville would you have tourist if they saw your rape stats?

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