Sunday, December 27, 2009

Franklin County Sheriff Arrested

Ewell Hunt is indicted on charges of not properly maintaining records. His daughter, Ashley, was reportedly being paid for hours she did not work. The 19-year-old also reportedly accompanied deputies on drug buys.
A scathing grand jury report on the Franklin County Sheriff's Office describes a dysfunctional agency where the sheriff's teenage daughter disrupted the chain of command and lax evidence handling allowed seized drugs to show up at the high school.

Sheriff Ewell Hunt was arrested Monday after a special grand jury indicted him on a misdemeanor charge of not properly maintaining the records Virginia law requires a sheriff to keep.

A statement from Hunt's attorney, William Stanley, said Hunt is innocent.

"We completely disagree with the conclusions, speculations, and conjecture that are the underpinnings of the report," the statement said.

Hunt, who is finishing his second year as sheriff, has no plans to resign, the statement said.

The charge against him follows other serious allegations against sheriffs in Henry and Page counties in recent years.

The special grand jury spent more than six months investigating the sheriff's office after allegations that Ashley Hunt was getting paid for hours she hadn't worked. She was not indicted.

A report by the special grand jury made public Monday described Ashley Hunt's work schedule as "very irregular and, in its extreme, surprising and highly suspicious." The panel found that the sheriff had directed Maj. Josh Carter to approve Ashley Hunt's timecards, even though Carter questioned their accuracy.

Carter reported the issue to the commonwealth attorney's office. The sheriff fired Carter, and Lt. Allan Arrington, in May.

Sheriff Ewell Hunt"I'm just glad the report is out and it clears any wrongdoing on my part," Carter said Monday.

"I've always prided myself on doing the right thing."

The report said that Carter improperly approved Ashley Hunt's timecards, but that it didn't rise to the level of a criminal offense.

Ashley Hunt earned $11,494 last year.

The report found that not only was Ashley Hunt paid for time she didn't work, but she also went with deputies to stakeouts, drug buys, drug arrests and roundups without proper training and without being a sworn officer.

And once, the sheriff, who was in a department vehicle with his daughter, let her drive as they pursued a suspect at speeds up to 90 miles per hour, according to the report.

Ashley Hunt was hired at the sheriff's office as a part-time temporary employee when she was 14 years old. Hunt was then a lieutenant under former Sheriff Quint Overton.

At some point before January 2008, Ashley Hunt became the primary person responsible for purchasing, storage issuance and the management of equipment and supplies including uniforms, communication equipment, vehicles and other items, according to the report. It also said that she issued those items to those deputies whom she favored.

By January 2008, when Hunt was sworn in as sheriff, Ashley Hunt "self-prescribed her duties" and took on responsibilities of sworn deputies, the report says. She had access to police radios, and wore clothing that resembled or were identical to the deputies' uniforms.

"Ashley Hunt's employment was detrimental to the morale of the Sheriff's Department," the report says. "Her assignments were well beyond the usual responsibility given and tasks performed by other temporary, part-time clerks."

The report also said Ashley Hunt countermanded officers and disrespected the sheriff with uncontrolled emotional outbursts.

"She played an important, if not pivotal role, in preventing the Sheriff from realizing the potential of his staff and maintaining leadership," the report said.

Stanley, Ewell Hunt's attorney, also defended Ashley Hunt. "We completely disagree with the unfounded statements and conclusions about Ashley," he wrote.

The special grand jury also looked into the handling of evidence.

When Hunt was sworn in, the sheriff's office had a practice of storing evidence in closets, cars and "other questionably secure locations," the report said.

Following a January 2008 directive, deputies were supposed to have turned in all of their evidence.

The panel found "scant evidence" that deputies followed the directive.

In March 2008, the sheriff's office began storing evidence at a storage facility and hired a part-time evidence technician.

In June 2008, Arrington's son was charged with having illicit drugs at Franklin County High School. The special grand jury concluded that the drugs likely came from Arrington's evidence. The grand jury tried to locate all of the evidence connected to Arrington, but found that at least 26 bags of evidence remain missing.

The panel found that Arrington improperly possessed controlled substances because of the sheriff's office's lack of policy. He was not charged because his actions lacked criminal intent, the report said.

Arrington could not be reached Monday.

Franklin County Commonwealth's Attorney Cliff Hapgood did not return phone calls Monday about whether the mismanagement of evidence has, or might, affect the prosecution of cases in his office.

Pittsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney David Grimes, the special prosecutor in the case, also could not be reached Monday.

Members of the special grand jury contacted Monday said they were directed by a judge not to speak publicly about the report.

Hunt is the latest Western Virginia sheriff indicted in recent years, following Frank Cassell in Henry County and Danny Presgraves in Page County.

Cassell eventually pleaded guilty to making a false statement to investigators and was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined $15,000.

Presgraves pleaded guilty to racketeering and was given a 19-month prison sentence and fined $1,000. A $75,000 forfeiture also was imposed against Presgraves.