Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, pictured last year with a portion of the unreleased Asheville Police Department's evidence-room audit. Image courtesy of WSPA.

Asheville still hasn’t seen its $175,000 report on drugs, guns and money that disappeared from the police department’s evidence room. But as calls for releasing the audit grow louder, other documents obtained by Carolina Public Press provide more pieces of the puzzle.

When the news broke in early April 2011 that the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room was a potential crime scene, City Council promptly appropriated $175,000 for an extensive audit of what was missing.

When Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore received the evidence-room audit in January 2012, he discussed it with a news crew with the Spartanburg-based TV station WSPA. The station’s report showed the audit’s 15 volumes in blue binders on a shelf, and offered a fleeting glimpse at two pages inside the still-secret audit. Click image to view the station’s story.

But more than a year later — and more than three months after the report was completed — no one in city government has seen it, according to Asheville officials.

The audit, which fills 15 three-ring binders, sits in the office of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, who has denied some media requests to share it with the public and reportedly ignored others altogether.

Moore said previously that the audit is part of a criminal investigation, so it shouldn’t be released. The State Bureau of Investigation, aided by the FBI, is investigating the case.

Attorneys with the N.C. Press Association disagreed, asserting that the audit is a publicly funded inventory of items that should be considered a public record.

Now, Moore says that he’ll consult with the state attorney general’s office this week about whether to release the audit, according to an article in Sunday’s Asheville Citizen-Times.

Meanwhile, a trove of other, related documents obtained by Carolina Public Press offers clues about how the audit was conducted and who should have access to it.

For example, the contract for the audit says that the city of Asheville is owed a copy, while authorizing Moore to excise information that could jeopardize the criminal probe. But the city told Carolina Public Press last week that it’s deferring to Moore to decide if and when the audit can go public.

Read together, the documents released thus far offer hints of what the audit might reveal, if and when it leaves the district attorney’s office.

Documents obtained by Carolina Public Press can be read and/or downloaded in their entirety below.

The initial, partial audit sounded an alarm

In early 2011, the Asheville Police Department hired one of its former officers, N.C. Justice Academy instructor Ross Robinson, to audit parts of the evidence room’s holdings. He focused on 1,097 priority items in three categories — “guns, drugs and money,” as he put it — and found that 115 of them were “not accounted for.”

Robinson’s tally of the absent evidence included 34 “money and valuables” items, 27 guns and 54 packets of drugs.

Robinson’s report was sent to Moore on April 8, 2011, by then-Police Chief Bill Hogan (who would abruptly announce plans to resign a few weeks later). In a cover letter, Hogan noted plans to bring in an outside auditor for a comprehensive search of what else might be missing.

Audit contract called for wider dissemination

Days later, at its April 12, 2011, meeting, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to approve a rapidly prepared request from city staff to allocate $175,000 for an expanded audit of the evidence room.

As the minutes of the meeting note, both Hogan and Moore said they favored inking a contract with Blueline Systems & Services to do the audit. The private firm is headed by former Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office crime-scene investigator Mike Wright, who had worked extensively with Moore in the past.

The 11-page contract between the city and Blueline, which was completed and signed two months later, listed precise requirements for the audit and how it would be shared once completed.

When the inventory was done, the company was to provide a copy to both Moore and the city of Asheville, the contract said. But it stipulated that Moore could suppress parts of the report if releasing them would impede investigations or prosecutions.

If that were the case, the contract said, Blueline, “in consultation with the District Attorney, shall redact or remove from the final report such confidential information and provide the City with a copy of the remaining information contained in the final report.”

City officials say they haven’t sought even a redacted version of the report and that they’ll leave the question of disclosing it to Moore.

In an e-mailed response last Friday to questions from Carolina Public Press, the city’s public-information officer, Dawa Hitch, said that Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson is “the point person on this.”

Richardson had this to convey, according to Hitch: “The audit report is a key component of the ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the SBI. The district attorney will determine the appropriate time to release the report to the city. What is most important to the city is that there is a successful outcome to the criminal investigation. In order to ensure that outcome, we have to be patient and let the investigation run its course.”

Invoices show scale, range of auditor’s work

When Moore appeared before City Council to ask for the audit funds, he reported that the evidence room held an estimated 90,000 items. He requested that the audit focus on “at least the 13,000 of what are termed critical items, which is guns, drugs and money,” and said that such a review “will probably tell us what we need to know.”

To survey and catalog that many items, Blueline purchased thousands of dollars worth of forensics and storage equipment, including cameras, computers, shelving units and special gloves and evidence tags, according to the company’s invoices to the city.

The company also billed the city as much as $120 per staff hour for tasks including meeting with city and county officials and news reporters.

The extensive invoice records, receipts and related e-mail messages, which are presented below, appear to document an audit that was strictly an inventory of which items were on hand and which had gone missing. They contain no discussion, for example, of investigations of potential suspects in the case.

The records show that Blueline completed the bulk of its work in late 2011, billing the city for a total just short of the $175,000 that was originally allotted.

According to Hitch, while City Council originally appropriated that sum from Asheville’s general fund, the cost of the audit has since been covered with money obtained from federal and state drug-seizure funds.

Back in January, Moore did make a few comments to local media outlets about what’s in the report he won’t release. He was still sifting through the hefty paper trail, he said, but it was already clear that the problems suggested by the earlier audit were indeed pervasive.

That partial audit indicated that at least 54 drug-evidence parcels were missing contents, whereas the full audit found that up to 200 such drug items were gone, Moore said. As yet, he’s offered no new count for the missing guns and money.

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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