Abbott convicted of bribery; not guilty of misusing public funds, embezzlement
by Tom Chillemi
Former Middlesex Sheriff Guy L. Abbott was found guilty in Middlesex Circuit Court on Wednesday, August 15, of two counts of bribery that occurred in 2004 and 2006 and involved two of his deputies.
Judge Paul F. Sheridan found Abbott not guilty of 8 charges that he knowingly misused “asset forfeiture” account funds in purchasing items such as meals for deputies and law enforcement officers, and equipment. Judge Sheridan also found Abbott not guilty of one other bribery charge.
Abbott remains free on bond pending sentencing on October 11 at 10 a.m.
Abbott took the witness stand on Tuesday, August 14, attempting to defend his actions that led to indictments on 25 felony charges related to financial expenditures, property disposal and three counts of bribery while he was sheriff.
Abbott, 56, served three terms as Middlesex Sheriff, from 2000 through 2011. He lost the 2011 election.
Abbott has been forced to remain silent since the Virginia State Police raided his office and seized records in March and June of 2011.
In August 2011, a special grand jury indicted Abbott on 18 charges of misuse or misappropriation of public assets, four counts of embezzlement, and three counts of bribery.
However, on Tuesday following motions made by Abbott’s attorney, Craig Cooley, to “strike” charges, Judge Sheridan dismissed 10 charges. Dismissed charges included two counts related to Abbott’s commission as the executor of an estate.
Sheridan also dismissed three counts involving Abbott’s disposal of two boats and a car acquired through a military surplus program; and his use of the sheriff’s “asset forfeiture account” to pay for $100 Christmas bonuses for 21 employees in 2003, but not for himself. The judge also threw out a charge that Abbott improperly used the forfeiture account to buy a $421 suit for an investigator to wear to court.
Two other charges related to the asset forfeiture account expenditures were withdrawn by the prosecutor as the trial began on August 9.
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office authorized the investigation in 2009, and the case was prosecuted by assistant attorney generals Shannon Dion, Ann Reardon and Benjamin Katz.
Sampson testified that on March 31, 2006, Abbott gave him a $1,200 check drawn on the asset forfeiture account, which contains funds from property seized from drug cases. Sampson said he was due overtime for working on major cases as part of multi-jurisdictional drug task force.
At the same time Sampson was given the check, Abbott also gave him a BB&T bank deposit slip and told him to keep $400 of the $1,200 check, but to deposit $800 into Abbott’s personal account, which he did. “I was a little uncomfortable with it, because it’s not my place to handle someone else’s money,” said Sampson, who also testified he told Abbott later how he felt about the transaction. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”
Regarding the $800 deposit, Abbott testified he didn’t know the deposit was made, but he asked for the money because he had used personal money “from my pocket” to finance drug investigations, making controlled drug buys and buying cigarettes and beer used during undercover investigations. He added the state would not reimburse him for these expenses. “I was taking it as repayment,” he said.
Sampson testified that Abbott told him he had been working on sheriff’s department cars and not getting paid, and Abbott felt like he was due the $800.
Judge Sheridan said in dismissing this charge that the presence of a deposit slip does not indicate “a covert act.”
Abbott was convicted of the bribery charge that involved borrowing $300 from Sampson. Sampson testified that Abbott gave him a $700 asset forfeiture check as drug investigation overtime payment, and told him to keep it all and he would deduct the extra money from Sampson’s comp time balance. Sampson said he had expected the amount to be $400 because he had worked a similar amount of hours.
Sampson said he then got a call from Abbott asking to borrow $300.
Abbott testified on Tuesday he had no recollection of borrowing the $300 or of the $700 check.
Judge Sheridan said in his ruling there was some question of Abbott’s intent to repay the money he borrowed.
The second bribery conviction involved testimony from current Middlesex Deputy Lt. Jim Ellis, who testified he had worked in May of 2004 “off duty” for the Virginia Motor Speedway (VMS). His paycheck for that work was brought to the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office for disbursement the following week. Ellis said Abbott asked him to cash the check and give him the $120 because he would be traveling. Abbott instructed Ellis to fill out a time sheet and he would be paid through the sheriff’s office.
During his testimony, Abbott said, “I do not deny” the action. Abbott explained he transferred Ellis, for accounting purposes, from being “off-duty” to “on-duty” while working at VMS that night. Abbott noted his office already had on-duty officers at VMS.
Ellis testified he followed Abbott’s instructions reluctantly, and that he was a new employee and did not know what would happen if he did not do so. Ellis also testified he was concerned since his wife was a Middlesex dispatcher and they both could lose their jobs.
Abbott testified he would not have fired them, “and they knew it.”
In making his ruling, Judge Sheridan said the deputies complied with Abbott’ requests involving money because they sought their “commanding officer’s high opinion.”
Abbott also testified he saved the county money by having volunteers work on police vehicles at his house. The estimated cost of labor to outfit a police car with lights, siren and electronics is about $3,000.
Wayne Kidd, who volunteered his time to outfit the vehicles, estimated he had wired and outfitted 10 new police cruisers and fixed a total of 21 cars. Kidd said he also built a mobile command center from a used bus.
Abbott said that a power washer that was identified in one indictment had been used at his house to clean police vehicles and engines.
Debra Turck, who coordinated the asset forfeiture program for the Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) for 8.5 years, testified that those funds are to be used “strictly for law enforcement purposes.”
Prosecutor Dion argued that Abbott had the asset forfeiture fund pay for numerous meals that were not related to law enforcement.
Under questioning by Dion, Turck gave an example of where food and beverages expenditures were permitted, such as if they were part of a comprehensive package at a hotel that was hosting law enforcement training. “We want it to be official training” as opposed to a meeting, she said.
Turck said food bought at a meeting where law enforcement operations were discussed was not a permitted expense. “The bottom line is, it has to be for law enforcement purposes.”
Turck said “memorials” that are not “extravagant,” and award plaques were permitted expenditures.
In 2009 Middlesex Treasurer Betty Bray, who controls dispersement of money from the asset forfeiture account, sought advice from DCJS on Abbott’s request to use asset forfeiture funds for a Christmas party. “They are not for social events,” Turck testified.
After that, Abbott ceased meal purchases, said Abbott’s attorney, Craig Cooley.
Under cross examination by Cooley, Turck said the asset forfeiture “guidelines were general in nature. We rely on localities to use their best judgment.”
Turck said that food bought at a multi-jurisdictional drug task force meeting at an Urbanna restaurant to discuss law enforcement plans was “one of those gray areas” where asset forfeiture funds could possibly be spent.
There were other “gray areas,” Turck said, including food purchased when it was related to a stakeout or while serving in a disaster emergency, or as part of graduation ceremony from a law enforcement academy, among other situations.
Under questioning by Cooley, Turck admitted that DCJS did not notify Abbott of incorrect expenditures.
Cooley argued that the legislature did not establish the guidelines, but directed that a board set up an audit procedure to ensure compliance.
Abbott testified that all items purchased through the asset forfeiture account and through his office were related to law enforcement. Regarding a $1,389 Visa credit card bill from 2002 that was paid from the asset forfeiture account, Abbott said, “It was for law enforcement purposes, because I’d have marked it otherwise if it wasn’t.”
Regarding meals purchased, Abbott said that in his first year in office his secretary called the DCJS and was told meal purchases were permitted.
Regarding cell phones allegedly used by his wife, sons and daughter, Abbott testified those charges were marked off the sheriff’s office Verizon bill and he paid for these personal phones himself. He also said that when deputies left employment who had cell phones provided by his office, he would give those phones to his son to avoid the early termination fee. If another deputy was hired, he would take the phone from his son and give it to the new employee.