WOODSTOCK — Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter defended himself and his office Thursday from what he called accusations by at least one member of the Board of Supervisors.
Board members asked the law enforcement veteran to stand at the podium and answer their questions about assets such as money and property his office receives through its work with federal agencies. Carter has stood before the board on many occasions to answer supervisors’ questions about how the office obtained the assets and its purpose for the funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
But the discussion quickly turned into an interrogation as some supervisors asked the sheriff to explain how he obtained the assets. Carter told supervisors he would not discuss the details of open investigations, even cases that might appear closed, with board members. Some board members responded by saying they did not want to jeopardize law enforcement investigations.
Chairman Conrad Helsley made a statement before opening up the discussion.
“The questions are not meant to suggest [impropriety] at all, but simply an effort to understand our collective liabilities as a county and as board members,” Helsley said. “So we think these are very high-level questions that will not impact any individual in the sheriff’s department or any investigation.”
But after roughly 20 minutes of board members questioning the sheriff, Carter went on the defensive.
“There’s nothing that we’re doing that is questionable at all,” Carter said.
District 2 Supervisor Steven Baker interjected: “I didn’t say that, sir.”
Carter continued: “And for the board to even imply that there’s something you gotta know about so you don’t get in trouble is very troubling to me.”
“I try to have a better relationship with the board,” Carter said. “I know I have a better relationship with some board members than others. I get that. I can work on that. We, as an organization, have no problem working on that either.”
The sheriff went on to say he has told board members Shenandoah County’s unique situation with cases it worked prompted the federal government to rewrite the asset forfeiture manual.
“You’re never going to see a case like that again,” Carter said. “It ain’t happening, at least not at a local level.”
Federal law enforcement agencies met with the treasurer and set up an account when they came to work in the county, Helsley recalled. The chairman questioned why, when the federal agents left and the Sheriff’s Office continued with the investigation, the sheriff did not set up an account with the treasurer to hold what was later identified in Shenandoah County Circuit Court as $3.4 million in “eight bank accounts.”
The Sheriff’s Office had acquired the $3.4 million as a result of its investigations and held the money in “eight bank accounts” until the funds were released to the county.
Carter said he didn’t understand Helsley’s comment.
“Again, we’re talking about logistics and details of an undercover operation,” Carter said. “We were directed by the United States Attorney’s Office to keep those accounts separate and to keep those accounts under our control and we did exactly what the U.S. Attorney’s Office told us to do.”
Carter said he did not know why federal agents set up an account with the county treasurer. Carter told Helsley the asset forfeiture funds and the money in the eight bank accounts are separate. Major Scott Proctor, seated with several other Sheriff’s Office employees, said the treasurer set up the asset forfeiture account years ago. The U.S. Attorney’s Office required his agency to keep the money in the eight bank accounts separate, Carter said.
Helsley reiterated his concerns and cited the case of Richard Chrisman, the former county landfill operator convicted of stealing funds from the county in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“It all goes back to – and we’re not accusing anybody of anything – but when you’re dealing with money and human beings and we’ve seen examples of that, Richard Crisman, for example, and no accountability,” Helsley said.
“What are you saying, no accountability?” Carter responded. “I mean, you keep throwing us in this bucket with people that are criminals and I’m taking offense to that.”
“I would think you would want all of that audited so that you know,” Helsley said. “We don’t know if monies were spent out of that (eight bank accounts).”
Carter took issue with Helsley’s comments.
“This is something you’ve been trying to figure out over the last eight years and I think you’re dragging the board into the middle of it,” Carter said.
A sworn affidavit filed with the circuit court governs the funds identified in the eight bank accounts, Carter said. The sheriff then asked Helsley if he was saying the person who signed off on the affidavit was lying, to which the chairman said he was not.
“You just said could they have spent monies out of that,” Carter said.
The sheriff turned to his staff.
“I just want the staff to hear this ‘cause basically he’s saying that I’ve got law enforcement officers lying under oath,” Carter said.
Helsley refuted Carter’s claim. District 4 Supervisor Karl Roulston also told the sheriff he had not accused him of any impropriety. Helsley said no board member was making that accusation. Carter didn’t agree.
“I think this is incredible that we’re having this conversation like this,” Carter said.
Roulston told the sheriff he wants to learn more and have his questions answered and not pick fights. Carter told Roulston he didn’t take offense to any comments he made.
“I just pray to God that the culture of this board changes and I think it will change when you leave,” Carter said, directing his comment to the chairman.
Later in the board meeting after the sheriff and his staff left, Helsley said during the supervisors’ comment period that he and the rest of the board are looking at “accountability.”
“We’ve seen when things aren’t accountable and so that is the main word that I’m concerned about,” Helsley said. “I absolutely do not hate the sheriff’s department and I think that was an unfortunate emotion response and ... none of us are trying to look into the actual cases or anything else.
“I don’t see any problem with what the board should know,” Helsley said.
Earlier in the discussion, District 3 Supervisor Richard Walker said he has concerns with money that the Sheriff’s Office collects that is not connected to the federal asset forfeiture program. Walker specifically cited the $3.4 million in what has been identified in Shenandoah County Circuit Court as “eight bank accounts.” The funds in the accounts have not been held by the county Treasurer’s Office and thus have not been audited, which causes some concern, Walker said. The supervisor went on to say that he wanted to avoid liability on the county’s part by making sure all federal and state taxes are paid on any assets collected. Walker said he wants Treasurer Cindy George and her office to have access to the funds.
“I would just like to make sure that any compensation paid out of those ongoing things did not go to county employees that could be misconstrued,” Walker said.
Walker added that he would feel better as a board member if the treasurer could keep the records and then provide the information to the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts for auditing to protect the Sheriff’s Office and give the board the sense that members “don’t have to look over our shoulders.”
Roulston said he did not want to jeopardize ongoing investigations but asked Carter if he could tell the board members when assets become available.
“I think collaboratively we might do a better job in the county if we know that there’s something that’s available or we know will be, again, without jeopardizing any ongoing investigation, that we could use that planning much like ... the building of the sheriff’s office,” Roulston said.
Carter told Roulston he could keep the board in the loop.
“The question is the process and how do we do that, and if you know my history with this board and previous boards ... I think there needs to be a culture shift ... if we’re going to do that because I think we have done some of that in the past,” Carter said.
The sheriff explained that in some instances he and the board discussed asset forfeiture in a meeting. However, the board on occasion engages in discussions without any representatives of the Sheriff’s Office present, Carter said. The sheriff went on to say that decisions made by supervisors without a representative from his office create conflicts between the agency and the board.
Roulston said he thinks it would help the board as it makes the budget to know the Sheriff’s Office’s needs and available asset forfeiture funds. As Carter has explained to supervisors on numerous occasions, federal guidelines advise law enforcement agencies participating in asset sharing should not anticipate funds before receiving the money.
District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris explained to Roulston that sheriffs have met on occasion with two board members to discuss some law enforcement matters. Morris said the practice worked well and Carter said he had no problem with talking to board members in this way.
During the discussion, District 2 Supervisor Steven Baker said the board wants to remain upfront and transparent.
“I don’t have a problem with being transparent,” Carter responded. “I have a problem with risking the lives of my staff.”
“We don’t want anything like that,” Baker said.
“I thought we were here to talk about asset forfeiture,” Carter said, adding that he would not discuss logistics and other details of ongoing investigations.
Baker said the board wanted to talk about “these accounts.” Carter told Baker the information is available in the court.
“I don’t understand how a decision to investigate a criminal enterprise has to be approved by this body,” Carter said.
Roulston then asked Carter what happens with assets once the case is concluded.
“You believe that when a case is over the case is over,” Carter said. I can tell you that we’ve helped other organizations throughout the country set up cases similar to the ones we’ve done here.”
Roulston asked if divulging information could compromise other investigations.
“That happens now,” Carter said. “This discussion we’re having right now is being picked up by the media.
“The bad guys read the paper ... which makes me feel uncomfortable talking about it in this venue,” Carter went on to say. “If what you want is to sit down periodically and understand those things better I have no problem with that.”
Roulston reiterated he wanted to discuss the topic in a manner that would not interfere with ongoing investigations. Carter went on to talk about a case his agency investigated.
“When we worked the one case that I’m sitting here thinking about, the bad guys were actually laundering money in the Middle East,” Carter said. “Who does that? Who do you all think does that? I have an inclination of who I think does that and I worry about my family every night.
“Now they’ll write in the news article that it’s the cigarette case and you’ll hear from your constituents ‘I don’t understand why the sheriff’s involved in that cigarette case,’” Carter said. “But I know I’ve got people that are laundering millions of dollars in the Middle East. That worries me a little bit. It worries my staff. It keeps me up at night. But we’re having that discussion right now. I don’t understand why we’re having that.”