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Asheville Police Evidence Room Audit Sparks Public Records Debate

1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team/Flickr

The Police Evidence Room in Asheville is the subject of an intense public records battle. More than a year ago, a partial audit revealed guns, drugs, and cash were missing. The police chief resigned.

Another, more thorough audit has been completed. But the district attorney won’t release its findings. He says it’s part of an ongoing SBI investigation.

A coalition of media groups sued for the audit’s release, and last week, a judge sided with the DA.

Jon Elliston is covering the dispute for the investigative website Carolina Public Press, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He spoke to Duncan McFadyenMCFADYEN: So why do you and the other media organizations want a copy of this audit?

ELLISTON: Well, to begin with, we believe it is properly a public record. That is, it was commissioned by Asheville City Council. Though it was conducted by a private firm, this audit was done with public funds. And it was done about a very sensitive topic, granted, but one that we believe deserves a greater level of transparency and information sharing with the public. Otherwise, we’re left with nothing but speculation and rumor.

MCFADYEN: What has the district attorney Ron Moore said about releasing the audit? Has he said as soon as this SBI investigation is completed that he’ll make it public?

ELLISTON: He has said that. He’s gone so far as to say he’d like to release it, but he simply cannot while there’s an ongoing investigation.

MCFADYEN: Why couldn’t the district attorney provided a public version that just has a lot of redactions?

ELLISTON: He commented to one media outlet that he doesn’t see the value in releasing an audit wherein perhaps 90 percent of the information was redacted. We don’t know if he believes that was absolutely necessary, but he hinted that he’d have to redact so much, that the audit would not be useful.

MCFADYEN: So, is it likely the investigation is into what happened in the evidence room itself, not a case that had evidence in the room?

ELLISTON: That’s right. We believe and have been informed roughly as much that this is an ongoing investigation into the integrity of the evidence room itself, to see what items may or may not have been stolen.

MCFADYEN: Can you compare the scope of the two audits? The one we do know the results of and this larger one?

ELLISTON: Certainly. The preliminary partial audit looked at about 1,100 items, whereas this full inventory looked at more along the lines of 30,000 items.

MCFADYEN: Is it possible that this could be a big problem for the Asheville Police Department, involving multiple people there?

ELLISTON: We don’t know for certain. We know that one individual who had managed the evidence room for close to 20 years was suspended and subsequently resigned. He wasn’t the only individual who worked in the room, so we simply don’t know if he and others or however many folks are targets in the investigation.

MCFADYEN: Is the only instance you know of of this happening in the state where an audit with public money has been withheld from public view, at least for a time.

ELLISTON: Yes, it is. There may well be other cases, but we haven’t heard of them. We are very familiar with our own experience, and that is we’ve been able to obtain through the public records act a couple dozen audits at least partial audits --- that had been done of the evidence room prior to and since the scandal. We also know that other sheriffs and police departments have released their audits in other parts of the state.