Asheville City Council unlikely to press for police evidence-room audit

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But Bothwell says he’ll formally request report

A forensic inventory of the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room remains under wraps, with a sole copy in the hands of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore. Despite appropriating $175,000 for the audit, which was completed almost four months ago, Asheville City Council now seems to have little initiative for pressing for its public release.

But, Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, said he plans to formally ask for the audit report at the committee’s next meeting, on May 28.

Overall, interviews with six of the seven council members, conducted during the past week, show a rising level of concern but no consensus about to handle the tally of missing drugs, guns and money. Mayor Terry Bellamy, who’s in the final throws of her Congressional primary campaign, was not available last week for comment.

Moore has denied or ignored requests for the report, saying it’s shielded by an exemption in the state’s public-records law relating to ongoing investigations. He forwarded Carolina Public Press’ request to Tammy Smith, with the legal division of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, who denied the request. Captain Wade Wood with the Asheville Police Department wrote, in an e-mail responding to a separate public-records request from Carolina Public Press, “The APD does not have access to the Blueline Audit report.”

Several local media outlets, and attorneys from the N.C. Press Association, have argued that the report should be made public because the audit simply documents what was and wasn’t in the evidence room, without delving into the matter of potential criminal suspects.

Cecil Bothwell: Not in a hurry, but he’ll request it

“I think the city should eventually have access” to the audit report, Bothwell said. “I’m not in a particularly big hurry, and it’s not that I’m protecting anyone. But if it’s legitimately being used for a criminal investigation, I don’t know what revealing it at the moment would do.

“Because this is an investigation of local law enforcement, this has moved to the State Bureau of Investigation, and my view is that the SBI is where investigations go to die,” he said.

For example, Bothwell noted, the evidence room overseen by former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford was found to be missing massive amounts of items five years ago, but no one’s been charged. Medford and some of his deputies were convicted of unrelated crimes.

“We know that somebody stole some drugs and other things” from the Asheville evidence room, Bothwell said. “But I don’t believe that anything in the audit is going to show us anything alarming or different” from what’s already known.

Bothwell is chairman of the Public Safety Committee, which next meets on May 28. He said that given the public interest in the matter, he’ll formally request a copy of the audit report at the meeting.

“We did pay for it, we ought to get it,” he said. “At least we should request it formally. But my guess is that we’re going to be told it’s part of an investigation,” he said, adding that he expects the report probably won’t be forthcoming until if and when the SBI gives approval.

Jan Davis: Let the district attorney do his work

“We’re following the lead of the district attorney, and it’s not been forthcoming at this point,” Davis noted of the report. “We commissioned it because we thought it was necessary, but we want to make sure that it’s done properly.

“In my opinion, it’s not a huge issue whether or not get it right now or not. We’re waiting on the district attorney on that,” he said.

“We paid for it, we’ve got reputable people doing it, it will come out and the lead will be by the district attorney,” he said. “I don’t see why people are frustrated by not seeing it prematurely.”

Marc Hunt: Defer to the DA for now, but council should eventually see the report

Hunt is one of two council members who was elected last November, so he wasn’t there when the audit was commissioned. But he does expect the results to eventually go public and reveal whether the secrecy is warranted.

“I basically respect the need for the district attorney to do his work,” Hunt said. “I don’t have the judgment that four months is sufficient time for the DA to have done his work, because I just don’t know what’s going on back there.

“I do feel strongly that, in some reasonable time frame, that we should see the results” of the audit, he said. “I think that, when the results are learned, it will become clear whether it was reasonable or not for it to have been withheld.

“We don’t have all the facts, so it’s impossible to make a determination now,” he added. “The reality will show itself one day.

“If the public is concerned that the findings will be buried forever — I just don’t see that happening, because of the obligation of transparency that the city is ultimately going to require. I’m patient for the moment.”

Esther Manheimer: Council needs more information to make a call

Manheimer, the lone attorney on city council, said that so much basic information is lacking that it’s hard to stake out a position.

“We haven’t been briefed about this,” she said of the audit findings. “It hasn’t come up in a council meeting. We don’t have an informational email, even, from the DA or the city manager, so I don’t know what they have to say about it.

“The most important thing, of course, about an audit of an evidence room is maintaining the integrity of the evidence the room is holding,” Manheimer said.

“I don’t know what the grounds are for denying the information to the press. … There’s not really enough information to weigh in one way or the other, but I assume that whatever the DA is doing he’s doing in order to maintain the integrity of the evidence.”

Manheimer said that several questions sprang to mind: Were prior audits of the evidence room public records? If so, is there something unique about this audit that would legally bar it from the public eye? And what’s the SBI’s position on the matter?

Given what we know, “it’s all speculation,” she said. “How can anyone possibly give you an educated opinion about this?”

Chris Pelly: Why is the report being withheld?

Pelly, as well, wasn’t on city council when the audit was approved. But he’s also forming some thoughts on the matter.

“It’s a relatively new issue to me, so I’m sort of learning my way around it,” he said.

“I’d like to know if there’s a compelling reason why to withhold it from the public,” he said. “I think it’s time to let Council know whether or not there’s an important reason not to release it, and if there’s not, then absolutely it’s time to release it.”

City Council won’t meet again until May 22, Pelly noted. Whether it acts on the matter then, “there’s been some internal discussion,” he said. “I think there will likely be some action — at a minimum, reaching out to the district attorney or the police chief to discuss with us why or why not the report will be released.”

Gordon Smith: Fixing what was wrong is first priority

“The more information that gets out there, the better,” Smith said. But he suggested a different focus regarding the case.

“The city has already made changes to the evidence room, so it now has the necessary safeguards to prevent the kinds of problems that brought the audit on,” he said. “That’s what I’m most interested in.

“I’m also interested in seeing the audit, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But ultimately the purpose of the audit was to fix what was wrong. And if that were being held up because of the release of the audit, I’d be jumping up and down.”

Might city council eventually take action to press for a release?

“It’s not impossible,” Smith said. “It’s not something that anyone (on city council) is talking about. I mean, I haven’t heard any chatter about it.

“It’s important that it eventually comes to light,” Smith added, but he predicted that it will probably take a lawsuit to make the report public.


More on the Asheville Police Department’s evidence-room audit from Carolina Public Press:

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Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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