The Jackson County Sheriff’s race is hot and getting hotter. While a controversial pay raise and allegations of questionable financial transactions are dogging incumbent Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, the possibility of a politically-motivated arson at challenger Robin Gunnels’ business has provided a sinister sub-plot to the campaign. Now the contest has taken a new turn with a group of Cashiers residents forming a political action committee aimed at unseating Ashe.
Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff has spent more than $2,000 on an ad campaign that reiterates allegations against Ashe that originally surfaced in newspaper accounts in recent months.
A primary organizer behind the political action committee is David Finn, the owner of Blue Ridge Public Safety, a private security business that patrols housing developments in the southern part of the county around Cashiers.
Finn sued Ashe in 2007, but he says the still unsettled lawsuit isn’t the motivation for the ad campaign the committee has launched.
“It’s no secret that I don’t like Jimmy Ashe,” Finn said. “It hasn’t always been that way. I’ve known him for 20 years, and I supported him in two elections.”
Finn said he could not comment on the lawsuit except to say he feels the trial will justify his stance against Ashe in the election.
“I’m looking forward to the trial, so the public can understand my change of heart,” Finn said.
Ashe has repeatedly said he will not engage in mudslinging with his challengers, and he said he could not comment on the lawsuit, either.
The suit itself provides a compelling backdrop to the election, because it sets up the rift between Ashe and Finn in the context of an up-county, down-county divide. In it, Finn alleges that Ashe used his office as sheriff to sabotage the $1.5 million sale of Sapphire Valley Public Safety as an act of political retribution.
The issue began innocently enough with Finn and Ashe on opposing sides of a policy debate playing out in Raleigh.
In 2006, as president of the North Carolina Company Police Association, Finn was advocating for a bill in the General Assembly that would have given private security forces like his jurisdiction on state and county roads adjacent to the properties they patrolled.
Ashe and the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association “vigorously opposed” the measure, which Ashe’s legal counsel concedes in the case file.
But Finn’s complaint goes on to allege that Ashe used his office and his deputies to harass Finn and the personnel of Blue Ridge Public Safety, then later sabotaged the sale of Sapphire Valley Public Safety. Finn had lined up a buyer for the subsidiary company, receiving a formal offer in May 2007.
In July, the buyers rescinded the offer.
The lawsuit alleges that Ashe used his influence to get the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate Blue Ridge Public Safety for wrongdoing — even though none had occurred — and that the investigation scuttled the sale.
“The investigations instigated by defendant James M. Ashe were based upon groundless and false accusation and were the specific reason the prospective purchasers did not perform under the contract,” the complaint alleges.
The case is scheduled for a trial in May.
From the beginning, Finn’s counsel has pushed for a jury trial while Ashe’s lawyers have asked that the case be dismissed on a lack of merit. In February, a judge declined to dismiss the case and ruled that it could proceed to trial.
Why form a PAC?
While political action committees are common in national politics, they are rare locally. People who spend money in local races usually donate to the candidate of their choice rather than form their own PAC with their own agenda.
In creating a political action committee, Finn said he is attempting to shed light on a pattern of abuse that has characterized Ashe’s leadership.
“I think the revelations in print media show Ashe’s misuse of tax money and raise some unanswered questions,” Finn said. “Without that attention, I think it would still be business as usual at the sheriff’s office.”
Ashe has come under fire for misappropriating revenue from drug seizures and for using a Harley Davidson seized from a drug dealer for personal use.
“The purpose of the PAC is to throw these things out there to get some answers,” Finn said. “We’re not supporting any candidate. I have my personal preference, but the PAC is not supporting anyone.”
Finn claims that he and his PAC are speaking out on behalf of a broader group of people who are reluctant to go on record for fear of incurring Ashe’s ire. The rules of PACs require any donors of more than $50 to be named in campaign finance reports. The PAC’s treasurer, John Bayley, said he preferred to let Finn speak for the group. The other two named contributors, Gary Ramey of Cashiers and Jeff Scott of Glenville, could not be reached for comment.
“A lot of people want to contribute under $50, because there is a real concern if the sheriff finds out,” Finn said.
The PAC has run ads in the Smoky Mountain News, The Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle and The Sylva Herald.
Ashe’s supporters have seen the ads as a smear campaign in what has become a dirty race for the sheriff’s office.
John Burgess of Sylva said seeing the negative ads in the newspaper have reinforced his support of Ashe.
“He really is the only candidate that is qualified to do the job,” Burgess said. “He has run a clean, no-slander campaign and is a leader in the community. I’ve never even heard of any of these other guys, but I do hear how nasty a campaign they run.”
The person who may have the most to gain from Finn’s ad campaign is Democratic candidate Robin Gunnels, who has emerged with Ashe as the frontrunner in the May primary.
Gunnels said the ads don’t have any new information, and he doesn’t think they’ll help his campaign.
“Those are things that came out last year and they’re just getting brought back up,” Gunnels said. “It’s just giving people the opportunity to see it and reflect on what’s right and what’s wrong in the county.”
Gunnels said the bigger issue in the election is how the Jackson County Sheriff will deal with the southern part of the county, where private security firms patrol expensive developments that are unoccupied for large portions of the year in the greater Cashiers and Glenville area.
Gunnels and Ashe clashed during a candidate’s debate in Cashiers last Tuesday over that subject.
Ashe has said one of his top priorities is to create a new substation in the south central part of the county that would help bolster security and enhance cooperation in those communities.
But Gunnels said Ashe had a policy of not responding to alarm calls in that area, something he routinely did when he was at the sheriff’s department.
Both Gunnels and Ashe have their power bases in the northern part of the county. Gunnels lives in Cullowhee and runs a business in Sylva, while Ashe is a highly visible political figure also in the north. Between now and May, both men will be trying to convince every voter they can that they have what it takes to keep the whole county safe.
The primary winner won’t be out of the woods, however, as two unaffiliated candidates are planning to get on the ballot through a petition process. One of them, Tim O’Brien, has worked for Finn at Blue Ridge Public Safety and lives in Cashiers.