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Wednesday, 09 June 2010 13:30

Civil suit targeting Jackson sheriff fails

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“The only reasonable verdict here is for Sheriff Ashe,” Patrick Flanagan told the jury. “He did not commit any wrongdoing here.”

The eight-person jury in the Bryson City federal courtroom agreed, taking slightly less than an hour to clear Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe on five complaints that alleged he used his position and influence to interfere with the business operations and free speech of David Finn, owner of Blue Ridge Public Safety. Blue Ridge Public Safety is a private security force hired by upscale developments in the greater Cashiers area to patrol their communities.

The case pitted two of Jackson County’s leading law enforcement officers against one another in the federal district courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger.

Finn’s lawyer, Frank Contrivo Jr., spent three days calling witnesses, reviewing subpoenaed phone records, and otherwise building the case against Sheriff Ashe.

Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan took only a few hours to offer a defense.

His message was simple: The only evidence that Ashe had interfered with Finn’s contracts was circumstantial, and Ashe’s own testimony that he had not used his office to put Finn under duress was credible.

Finn first sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his position to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale.

The complaints alleged that Ashe, working in concert with a lawyer for an influential group of Cashiers-area residents, inappropriately shared information that led to a slew of investigations into Finn’s business, which holds security and patrol contracts worth more than $1 million.

The day before Flanagan called his defense witnesses, Contrivo withdrew the leading claim driving the case thus far –– that Ashe had actively participated in ruining the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to John Hale for $1.5 million.

With that claim off the table, the case came down to whether Ashe interfered with six existing Blue Ridge Public Safety contracts and on whether he infringed on Finn’s First Amendment right to free speech.

According to Finn, Ashe was motivated to disrupt the business of Blue Ridge Public Safety because of a disagreement between the two men over proposed legislation that would have given company police broader powers, including jurisdiction on U.S. highways adjacent to the communities they patrol.

An important component of Contrivo’s case for Finn was the extent to which Ashe communicated with Cary-based Lawyer Mark Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee.

Seifert testified that he was hired by Cashiers property owners in 2006 to investigate Finn and that his goal was to put Blue Ridge Public Safety out of business.

Contrivo alleged that Ashe and Seifert “were singing a duet” as they worked in concert to manufacture claims against Blue Ridge Public Safety that hurt the business and ruined contracts. He showed through phone records that Ashe and Finn had had extensive contact with one another –– nearly 150 calls amounting to 30 hours of conversations.

“What we’ve seen in the past three days is a snapshot of the nightmare experienced by Mr. Finn’s business,” Contrivo told the jury in his closing argument.

Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, presented an argument that was repetitive, process oriented and clinical. He focused on the fact that not one witness testified to Ashe’s direct participation with Seifert or even to the fact that Ashe had spoken ill of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

“What we didn’t hear at all –– there was no evidence, no testimony –– was that the sheriff has ever made a derogatory comment about Mr. Finn or his company,” Flanagan said.

In contrast, Contrivo at times raised his voice to cajole the jury and at other times spoke in a barely audible whisper to contribute to the gravity of the moment. He tried to paint a picture of Ashe as an expert at behind the scenes deal-making who managed to get away with a crime by staying at arm’s length from it.

“We hear about a man who was turf conscious, jealous of his power, and jealous of what he perceived as a threat to his power,” Contrivo said, pointing at Ashe.

Contrivo asked the jury for $200,000 worth of damages to cover Finn’s lost contracts and legal fees. The jury wasn’t convinced. They cleared Ashe on each charge and entered zeroes in the spaces on the verdict sheet that asked for award amounts.

After the trial, Ashe said the verdict upheld his faith in the system.

“This has been a long process that needlessly burdened the taxpayers of our community,” Ashe said. “The quick verdict of the jury attests to what we have asserted from the beginning of the matter.”

Ashe also indirectly expressed his dismay that he had spent so much time over the past two years embroiled in the civil suit.

“There is no business more important than the people’s business, and I am proud of the confidence that the good people of Western North Carolina have shown in me and our deputies,” Ashe said. “I look forward to many more years of public service, and it’s time to get back on task.”

Neither Finn nor Contrivo responded to requests from comment on the case after the trial, so it is not clear whether they plan to appeal the verdict.

Flanagan said a potential appeal could take two forms. In the first scenario, Contrivo could make a motion to Judge Reidinger to set aside the jury’s verdict in his final judgment, which will be entered in the next few weeks.

A second approach would be for Contrivo to file an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. within 30 days of the final judgment being entered.

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