The Asheville Police Department’s evidence room scandal, which began with the early 2011 discovery that key items were missing from the room, entered a new phase at a campaign debate Friday.
Current District Attorney Ron Moore and challenger Todd Williams — the two Democratic candidates for district attorney in Buncombe County, which is also known as the Prosecutorial District 28 — will face off in the May 6 primary election, and the winner will not face a Republican challenger in November. Both have staked out positions regarding a consultant’s extensive survey of the evidence room.
The audit, commissioned by Asheville City Council and costing $175,000, sought to discover just how much was stolen.
It remains unseen by the public, despite a public-records lawsuit filed by Carolina Public Press and other local media outlets. In late 2012, a judge rejected the legal challenge to make the audit public.
Moore has insisted that the audit should remain under wraps until the sentencing of the only identified suspect, former APD evidence manager Lee Smith, is complete. Smith agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of stealing drug evidence a year ago, but still awaits sentencing.
Williams, a former public defender who’s in private practice now and challenging Moore for the DA office, has cited the audit’s off-limits status to charge that Moore isn’t sufficiently transparent.
Both candidates referenced the audit in their campaign communications before the recent forum, held on April 11 at the Buncombe County Courthouse.
In a campaign mailer, Williams said, “The current D.A. has withheld the evidence room audit. … Despite official requests, the current D.A. has withheld the audit.”
And Moore’s campaign website cited a need to keep the record to himself and defense attorneys.
“The District Attorney cannot release the audit until after the individual who committed crimes in the evidence room is sentenced in federal court,” Moore’s site asserted. “The DA has no control over the timing of federal sentencing but is hopeful it will occur quickly so that he may release the audit. Meanwhile the DA has made the audit available to defense attorneys in order that they may best represent their clients.”
Debating the audit in public
On Friday — the first public debate between the two candidates — Moore brought up the topic of the APD’s evidence audit, and brought part of the report with him.
“There are a lot of things I can’t talk about,” he said. “I have a lot in my head. I wish I could give you some of it. I’d love to, but I’m not allowed.” He picked up a thick, spiral-bound notebook.
“Here’s one of the 15 volumes of the audit,” Moore said. “I’ve read every page of it. … I’m happy to release it, but I can’t until the case is over.”
He also said that Williams hadn’t read the document, though he could have as a defense attorney.
Williams hit back, saying that “The district attorney is obligated to communicate effectively with the community.
“I contend there is a public perception that the documents just simply have not been released, for an unknown reason.”
Williams said he’s heard, since he filed for office, that Moore is trying to protect Smith’s due-process rights. “That, I don’t believe, has been communicated effectively with the community, and has cast a pall on the district attorney’s office.”
At a later point in the debate, Moore again brought up the audit, referencing “the transparency issue.”
“I’m the one that made them do an audit,” he said. “And based on the audit, I got the SBI and the FBI, and we were able to do prosecution over in federal court.”