COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It took federal prosecutors nearly six months to prepare to try former two-term Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin on charges that he turned his office into a criminal enterprise that involved drug dealers, a victim's advocate, and tens of thousands of tax payer dollars.
Melvin faces 47 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, lying to federal prosecutors, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine inside Lee County. US Assistant attorney Debbie Barbier told jurors Monday that the theme inside Lee County under Melvin was, "if you want to play, you've got to pay," referring to the unspoken rule that drug dealers would pay Melvin, "for the right to sell drugs in Lee County."
"It's often said power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely," Barbier told the jury during opening statements. "E.J. Melvin was the most powerful man in Lee County. E.J. Melvin was absolutely corrupt," Barbier said. Investigators said they started piecing together the Melvin ring in late 2006, after arresting a drug dealer in Lee County. That dealer, who is set to testify Tuesday, told agents his version of Melvin's supposed involvement with drug dealers.
Prosecutors plan to show under cover informant video and taped phone calls to document the former sheriff's participation in the conspiracy ring. The video, Barbier said, would give the public a "glimpse of the world that existed for a very long time in Lee County. The recordings would show the jury, "how the drug world operates," and was full of slang and profanity, Barbier warned the jury.
It didn't take Melvin long to set up his criminal enterprise, according to prosecutors. US Assistant attorney Mark Moore said Tuesday, Melvin's crimes started as soon as he took office in January 2001. From then, the sitting sheriff started a pattern of crimes that prosecutors said were "almost unbelievable, but you will hear it with your own ears," Barbier said Monday.
The first witness called was current Lee County sheriff's chief deputy, Timothy Clavon. Clavon was a Major of the department's narcotics unit under Melvin, then promoted two weeks ago by the new sheriff, Daniel Simon. Clavon is a 25 year veteran of the Lee County sheriff's office.
Melvin said he was conducting a one-man drug investigation into drug dealers in his county, when the FBI stepped in and arrested him May 1. Melvin confirmed that his defense team would work to convince the jury that's what was going on in the FBI wire taps, when prosecutors play them later this week. Clavon testified Monday that he never had records that Melvin had any drug informants working for the department, which the department's informant policies required. Policy required deputies to fill out forms giving the informant guidelines and responsibilities. The policy also required deputies to obtain a criminal history of the informant, a mug shot, and fingerprinting. Melvin, according to Clavon, never took those steps.
Prosecutors called Lee County finance director, Angie Helms to testify about invoices Melvin submitted to the county between 2006 and May 2010. Helms testified that the county had tightened controls over invoices and spending when she started "butting heads," with Melvin over invoices he'd asked the county to pay. Some of the invoices were from the kickback scheme prosecutors said Melvin and two local garages were involved with.
Two garages, Burrows Auto Sales and Secada Auto Sales, helped Melvin bilk at least $5,000 in county funds, according to prosecutors. The scheme involved the businesses billing the county for work on patrol cars; in some cases, the work was never performed. Moore said Melvin would inflate the bill, turn it in to the county and split the money with the businesses.
Helms told prosecutors she became suspicious of Melvin's invoices after she noticed two checks made out to Secada Auto Sales were signed by Melvin. In 25 years of book keeping, "I have not ever seen it before," Helms testified, referring to a department head endorsing a vendor's checks. Part of the problem, according to Helms was that Melvin refused to follow county procurement laws.
Melvin also stole at least $7,000 from the sheriff's Victim's Advocate fund during 2009, according to prosecutors. The sheriff's victim's advocate Angela Ruth, helped Melvin launder the money through the account after Melvin would over charge the county for catering services he performed, Moore said. Ruth would cut Melvin a check, which the sitting sheriff would cash. Melvin would then split the money with Ruth, according to Ruth's statements to the FBI. Ruth and Melvin were also romantically involved for a 12 year period, ending in 2005.
Prosecutors charged Melvin with 20 counts of extortion involving drug dealers investigators said they caught Melvin doing business with. In May-June 2009, investigators said Melvin met with Ricky Prescott about getting his drug charges dropped. The FBI said Melvin told Prescott to pay him $2,700, and he'd take care of the charges. Prescott paid Melvin $1,350 before Melvin was arrested May 1.
Melvin made a similar deal with Roshell Brown, who deputies arrested in March 2010 on drugs and animal cruelty charges, prosecutors said. The sheriff, and his "bag man," Larry Williams agreed to have Brown pay between $6,000 and $7,000 to "get rid of the charges." Prosecutors said the wire taps corroborate the allegations.
Prosecutors also charged Melvin with three counts of lying to the FBI. On April 19, FBI and SLED agents met with Melvin inside his office and handed the sheriff a list of people agents told Melvin they believed were involved in drug deals in Lee County. Melvin denied knowing anything about the dealing inside his county, and also lied to agents about knowing Eric Hickmon and Chris Peeples.
On April 23, agents said Melvin also lied when he denied having contact information on Larry Williams. Agents asked Melvin if he had an address or phone number for Williams, because the agents said they wanted to talk to Williams in connection to their on-going drug investigation. The FBI said, as soon as agents got off the phone with Melvin, he placed a call to Williams on his cell phone. Agents were listening in to the call on wire taps.
The final lie came May 1, the day agents arrested Melvin at his girlfriend, Monica Jones', home in Sumter, according to investigators. Melvin lied about extorting drug dealers during the FBI's interview inside the bureau's offices in Columbia.
Agents rounded up a total of 14 people in the investigation. All but Melvin have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, and have agreed to testify against Melvin during his trial.
Convicted drug dealer Quinten Davis will take the stand Tuesday against Melvin. Davis pleaded guilty to separate drug charges in 2009, and is serving a 10 year sentence. Davis will testify that he saw Melvin sell drugs to Bishopville gas station owner, George Patel from his police SUV in 2006, according to prosecutors.
If convicted, Melvin faces a minimum of 10 years to life in federal prison.