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U.S. attorneys oppose dismissal of charges against Arnold

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U.S. attorneys are opposing efforts to have seven criminal counts dismissed against Sheriff Robert Arnold and two co-defendants before their Feb. 7, 2017 trial on federal corruption charges.

In a filing before U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp, federal prosecutors note Arnold, former Chief Administrative Deputy Joe Russell and Arnold's uncle, John Vandeveer of Marietta, Ga., previously acknowledged a 14-count indictment "is plainly sufficient (on its face)" but now contend seven counts are meritless "because the wire communications at issue were not 'in furtherance of' the alleged scheme to defraud."

"This is ultimately a question for the jury to decide, and Arnold is free to present these arguments at trial," the prosecutors' filing states.

All three face a 14-count indictment stemming from an unauthorized plan to sell e-cigarettes to Rutherford County jail inmates through a company co-owned by Russell and Vanderveer, in which Arnold invested. From December 2013 to April 2015, when the media began reporting on the scheme, Arnold received $66,790, Russell $52,234 and Vanderveer $49,545, according to the indictment.

Judge Sharp recently said the trial will be held as scheduled, as long as he rules quickly on the defense motions.

The indictment contends the defendants set up a scheme to defraud Rutherford County of money and property and to defraud the county and its residents of "their right to honest services, through bribery and kickbacks," and it identifies several emails and one mailing transmitted "for the purpose of executing" the scheme.

Prosecutors say Arnold's motion to dismiss failed to identify any case in which the counts of an indictment were dropped because emails or wirings failed to advance the scheme. They point out the sheriff's defense "tacitly admits that his argument presents a question ultimately to be resolved at trial" when he acknowledges in his motion that the government might be able to explain how each count "furthered the alleged scheme."

Furthermore, federal attorneys say the messages in question did advance the scheme.

Jurors will find the wirings were used to execute the scheme, such as emails sent to a Chinese company to negotiate the purchase and price of e-cigarettes, the sale of which is "at the core of the scheme to defraud," prosecutors contend.

Other wirings show the defendants trying to "disguise" the role of Arnold and Russell in JailCigs and "misrepresent the benefits that had supposedly accrued to Rutherford County." Records show Russell was a co-owner of JailCigs with Vanderveer and Arnold was a main investor.

In one email Russell sent to an Alabama jail seeking its business he stated the program had been "quite successful" in Rutherford County" and noted "we have a good relationship with the vendor which is why I am doing this favor for him."

Arnold forwarded another email to Russell and Vanderveer from a journalist with The Murfreesboro Post posing several questions such as whether "the sheriff's office or jail ha(s) a contract with JailCigs" and how much money has been paid to Rutherford County, in light of Arnold's statement to "TV reporters (that) some of the revenue from Jail Cigs goes into the county's general fund."

County officials have said no money from JailCigs made its way to the general fund.

"These misleading statements and misrepresentations are part and parcel of the scheme to defraud Rutherford County of money and property and defraud Rutherford County and its citizens of the right to honest services," the filing states. "They also were intended to have the effect of lulling those who interacted with either JailCigs or the Sheriff's Office into a false sense of security regarding the propriety of the relationship between the company and the office."

In yet another email from Russell to a JailCigs customer, he tries to further the scheme by encouraging a vote for Arnold, saying the "program will end if Sheriff Arnold is not re-elected."

As for questions from the reporter, prosecutors say Arnold forwarded it to co-conspirators "to make them aware of the investigation. It was an essential part of the scheme to defraud for the defendants to coordinate their story regarding the relationship between JailCigs and the Sheriff's Office, and to assuage any concerns about whether the relationship was proper.

"If an investigative reporter learned the truth about Arnold and Russell's involvement in JailCigs, then it is likely that the scheme to defraud Rutherford County and its citizens would unravel," the filing states.

Sam Stockard may be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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