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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Corrupt Sheriff Brought Down By Reporters

Corrupt Kentucky Sheriff Brought Down By Reporters
CBS News -  May 6, 2012

A pen and a pistol were the tools one young Kentucky newspaper reporter needed during his investigation of his hometown sheriff. Adam Sulfridge exposed corruption in local law enforcement in his rural Kentucky county and ended up with an award-winning story and enough death threats against him that he had to start carrying a gun.  The following is a script from "Cleaning Up Whitley County" which originally aired on May 6, 2012. Byron Pitt is the correspondent. Clem Taylor, producer.

Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in America. Few places have been hit harder than Kentucky, a state that has also been ravaged by addiction to crystal meth. In Whitley County, Kentucky - in the heart of Appalachia -- matters were made worse when the man suspected of being at the center of the drug trade was the county's top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Lawrence Hodge. There had long been suspicions that Sheriff Hodge was dirty, but nobody - not even federal agents - could prove it. That's when two local journalists -- both in their 20s -- launched their own investigation. And they soon discovered poking into the affairs of a powerful county sheriff can be risky business.

Adam Sulfridge: You know you're 20 years old, and you're taking a shower one day and getting ready for class and you get a call from a federal agent because there's a credible threat against your life. Everything about it is just so surreal. You know. You don't-- you don't think a whole lot about it. Then later that night you start thinking, you're like, "Geez, somebody wants to kill me. That's a little odd." And it's the sheriff. The sheriff wants to kill you. This wasn't exactly how Adam Sulfridge had pictured a career in journalism. Adam was born and raised in Whitley County. In 2009, he was a sophomore at the local college and needed a job. The county's daily newspaper, the Times-Tribune, had an opening. And soon, Adam had his first assignment and dangerous enemies.
Byron Pitts: Why did you feel compelled to buy a gun?
Adam Sulfridge: You do have a credible threat against your life. And it seemed like a pretty reasonable thing to do. Samantha also purchased a gun at the same time.

Samantha Swindler, then 27, was managing editor of the Times-Tribune and Adam's boss.

Samantha Swindler: We were reporting on people involved in the drug trade. And people who were all hopped up on oxys, I don't know what they're going to do. I thought if something happened I'd go down with a fight.

Samantha was exotic by Whitley County standards: born in New Orleans, educated in Boston. She'd tangled with public officials as editor of a small newspaper in East Texas. She saw familiar signs in Whitley County.

Samantha Swindler: There are problems in this community with the good ole boy system, corrupt politics, that kind of thing.
Byron Pitts: It seems to me in many ways that this community's strength is also its weakness in some ways. This is a nice polite place where people have polite conversations -

Samantha Swindler: People are very proud here and it's a good thing, but it's also a bad thing in the way that it doesn't allow you to see the things that need change.

Whitley County, Kentucky, population 35,000, is tucked in the state's southeast corner on the border with Tennessee. People here take pride in the natural beauty of Cumberland Falls and in historic Sanders Cafe, birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is also poverty. The median income is $26,000. Drug addiction is rampant. Throughout the region, red signs identify homes once used as meth labs. And then there's prescription drug abuse. Oxycodone flows in so freely. They call this stretch of I-75 "the pill pipeline." In 2002, Lawrence Hodge was elected sheriff of Whitley County on the promise he'd clean it up. The sheriff's raid on one meth lab was covered by the local CBS affiliate. [Lawrence Hodge: When I knocked on the door the smell was already knocking me down. We're glad to shut it down. It put a dent in our drug problem here.] But early in his tenure there were rumors, talk around the county the sheriff had gone bad.

Todd Tremaine: From about 2004, he just went downhill and was corrupt. Involved with drugs dealers, taking payoffs, extorting money from defendants.

Todd Tremaine, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, says the FBI and State Police tried building a case against Sheriff Hodge, but couldn't penetrate his inner circle of drug dealers, crooked politicians and police officers.

Todd Tremaine: He was very insulated.
Byron Pitts: What do you mean "insulated?"
Todd Tremaine: There was a lot of fear of what Lawrence might do if they cooperated with the federal agents or state police.
Byron Pitts: He was untouchable?
Todd Tremaine: Yes.

Editor Samantha Swindler had heard similar stories, and suspected Sheriff Hodge might have a weakness: a paper trail. So she checked the department's evidence log.

Samantha Swindler: There were months when nothing was checked in. I knew that this wasn't right, because we had arrests every day in this area, particularly related to drugs. And when it's related to drugs you know there's probably a gun. And it wasn't there.

But to mount a serious investigation of the sheriff, Samantha needed help.

Byron Pitts: Why would you hire a 20-year-old? His only journalism experience is working on his high school newspaper?
Samantha Swindler: Well, when you say it like that...
Byron Pitts: Well, it's true.
Samantha Swindler: Well he was smart and he knew about the community and he cared about local government.
Adam Sulfridge: My aunt overdosed. And the first question I had was, "I wonder if she got her drugs from somebody that the sheriff was, you know, protecting.

Adam went to work, combing through years of case files. He noted arrests where drugs and weapons were seized by the sheriff's department and should have been logged. It was tedious and time-consuming.

Adam Sulfridge: At that point I was working up to like 70 hours a week. It was-- it was insane and it wasn't healthy. But I was, you know, just driven. I knew I was onto something and I couldn't stop.

What he was onto was a series of felony cases -- involving guns and drugs -- in which deals were cut and sentences mysteriously reduced. What's more, the defense attorney in each case was Sheriff Hodge's close friend, Ron Reynolds. One case involved this man, Rick Benson, a retired social worker. In May 2004, Sheriff Hodge and his men raided Benson's house. In addition to drugs they found 17 guns. Benson had a previous felony conviction on drug and weapons charges, so was forbidden to own firearms.

Byron Pitts: You knew that you'd go to prison.
Rick Benson: Probably for the rest of my life.
Byron Pitts: We're you scared, were you anxious?
Rick Benson: Oh yeah, I was terrified.
Byron Pitts: Because?
Rick Benson: My world was over.

During the raid on the house, Sheriff Hodge found Benson's bank statement. There was $600,000 in his checking account, alone. Despite appearances, this self-described meth abuser was a millionaire, heir to a publishing fortune. The night of his arrest, Benson says Sheriff Hodge offered him a deal. If he cooperated, the sheriff would see that Benson was represented by his old friend, attorney Ron Reynolds.

Rick Benson: I had heard of Ron.
Byron Pitts: And his reputation was?
Rick Benson: He could get things fixed. He said, "I'll guarantee you misdemeanors. With no jail time, but you'll have to move out of Kentucky."
Byron Pitts: Did you think he was on the up and up?
Rick Benson: Well, no. If he was on the up and up, he wouldn't have been able to do that?
Byron Pitts: How much was his fee?
Rick Benson: $150,000.
Byron Pitts: $150,000 is a lot of money.
Rick Benson: The rest of your life in prison's a lot of time.

Rick Benson says he was also forced to pay the sheriff $10,000 in cash and make a donation to the sheriff's department of $25,000.

Adam Sulfridge: That's enough to make you say, "Okay, what's going on here?" But then whenever you see the actual cashier's check in that file, where he donated $25,000 to the sheriff's department as a condition of his plea agreement that's just, I mean that's crazy.

With information on that case and others, Samantha and Adam pressed Sheriff Hodge for an interview. He reluctantly agreed.

Adam Sulfridge: He was just all relaxed, leaning back in his chair, being that good ole boy.
Byron Pitts: The sheriff thought this was a field trip?
Adam Sulfridge: Yeah. You know, you got this, this, little out-of-towner girl and this 20-year-old college kid. We played along, we played nice for a very long time. Let him lie.

In the course of the interview, legally recorded without Sheriff's Hodge's knowledge, Adam asked him about the guns seized from Rick Benson. But the sheriff's answers didn't match the facts. He claimed the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, had them.

[Lawrence Hodge: I don't even know who Rick Benson is...
Adam Sulfridge: He was a big case.
Lawrence Hodge: Oh, that's ATF, yeah. How many guns were they?
Adam Sulfridge: Seventeen.
Lawrence Hodge: On Rick Benson?
Adam Sulfridge: Yeah.
Lawrence Hodge: They would've took those. I tell you, you probably need to have an ATF agent here with me if you want to talk about that.
Adam Sulfridge: So I need to ask them if they got those guns?
Lawrence Hodge: Well, you just need to ask them about the whole case.]
Byron Pitts: So when the sheriff said he'd given guns to the ATF, you knew he was lying?
Adam Sulfridge: They never took the guns. They never even opened a case in this situation. And once we had that, I mean you got a heck of a story.
Todd Tremaine: I was like, "Wow. I can't believe he just said that." And he just kept lying, lying, lying and I was giddy.
Byron Pitts: What do you make of that? That two 20-somethings--
Todd Tremaine: Right.
Byron Pitts: With pens and notebooks could do what seasoned law enforcement officers couldn't do?
Todd Tremaine: They weren't dangerous to him. I think Lawrence was thinking, "Hey, kids, let me show you how the sheriff's department works, you know. Here's the jail and here's Barney and, you know, everybody from Mayberry." But they caught him off guard 'cause they'd done their research.

The reporters then filed what's called an open records request, requiring the sheriff to show where Benson's guns were stored. But six days later, Adam received a startling phone call.

Adam Sulfridge: "The sheriff's department's been broken into." And, you know, that gets you outta bed real fast.
Samantha Swindler: That was my "we got you" moment. I knew that he had staged it. I knew it.

Sheriff Hodge claimed guns, drugs and other evidence had been stolen. The office was trashed, but the doors showed no sign of forced entry.

Todd Tremaine: It was just made to look like a burglary so they could explain for why the drugs and guns had been missing. And they had been missing for several years.
Byron Pitts: So what was Sheriff Hodge doing with these guns and drugs?
Todd Tremaine: Guns gave 'em to political friends, sold 'em, traded 'em for Oxycodone.
Byron Pitts: He became a drug addict.
Todd Tremaine: Yes. He was a very serious drug addict. He had a very bad addiction with prescription pain pills.

Adam and Samantha's interview with the sheriff and the phony burglary gave law enforcement the break they needed. The man who once thought himself "untouchable" was now feeling the heat. Days later, an undercover officer recorded Sheriff Hodge threatening to kill Adam.

Adam Sulfridge: He said, "I'm going to effin' kill him. And the informants, like, "You're just mad." And he goes, "No, you don't understand, I'm going to kill him. I've already been by his house. I know where he lives." Despite the threat, the Times-Tribune continued to publish damaging allegations against the sheriff. And a state audit suggested he may have been stealing money from the department.
Samantha Swindler: He was taking money and cashing it and during convenient times, like before a three-day weekend or right before his wife's birthday.

By May 2010, the people of Whitley County had had enough. They voted Sheriff Hodge out of office. Six months later, he was indicted by a state grand jury. The most powerful lawman in Whitley County, led away in handcuffs, in his uniform. But Lawrence Hodge still had influence. Around the same time, two local thugs - friends of the sheriff, drove to Adam's house.

Adam Sulfridge: The passenger in the vehicle gets out, approaches me without saying a word, puts his hand a little bit into his waistband and I just quickly pulled my pistol.
Byron Pitts: You had your pistol on you?
Adam Sulfridge: At that point I didn't go anywhere without being armed. He saw that it had left the holster. I didn't point it at him or anything. And he explained that they were out looking for junk metal on my dead end street, and that they would be going now.
Byron Pitts: You pulled a gun. Were you prepared to use it?
Adam Sulfridge: Well, you never pull a gun unless you're prepared to use it.

Following that encounter, federal authorities compelled Adam to leave town under their protection. Already facing state charges, Lawrence Hodge was also being pursued by federal investigators. Central to their case was attorney Ron Reynolds, the sheriff's accomplice in the shakedown of Rick Benson. Reynolds turned on his old friend, implicating the sheriff in the extortion scheme. Lawrence Hodge had no choice but to cop a plea.

Todd Tremaine: The prosecutor told him, "We could put you in prison for a very, very, very long time. Our case is solid. You will be convicted." You could see that he was defeated.

Last May, two years after Samantha and Adam launched their investigation, former sheriff Lawrence Hodge pleaded guilty to extortion, distributing drugs and money laundering. He was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. He declined our request for an interview.

Byron Pitts: That's mostly from the work you two did, right?
Samantha Swindler: Yes.

Samantha and Adam's reporting also led to the conviction of 15 of Lawrence Hodge's associates. Both journalists have since left the Times-Tribune. Samantha lives in Oregon, where she's editor and publisher of a small weekly. Adam, just a year out of college and unemployed, remains in Whitley County.

Byron Pitts: What went through your mind when you saw Sheriff Hodge in handcuffs, in his uniform?
Adam Sulfridge: You know a lot of people thought I'd be jumping for joy and, you know, all elated there that the sheriff got arrested. And it's really not. It's terrible that this happened. I hate to see for my community. I hate to see that plastered all over the place. You know, uh, Whitley County, synonymous now with a corrupt sheriff. I don't like that. I think-- I think the real story should be that a bunch of people here came together and, you know, cleaned it up.

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