Thursday, March 31, 2011

Greenville County silences its harshest critic

Opinion by Dan Ruck

Greenville, SC – Greenville County's most prominent critic, the colorful and outspoken former county councilman Tony Trout, is in jail again, but not for as long as he might have been.

Trout was convicted in state court in Greenville March 31 on charges of attempting to influence a grand jury. A judge sentenced him to six months behind bars, but the defiant Trout was found not guilty of misconduct in office – a misdemeanor for which he could have served 10 years – and his lawyer said after the trial that with good conduct Trout might be free in three months.

Although the state might not have muzzled this rebel for as long as it wanted, it appears to have accomplished its objective because Trout told the judge while appealing for a reduced sentence, “I've learned my lesson. You'll never hear from Tony Trout again. I'm going to spend the rest of my life quietly with my son and family.”

Despite that appeal, 13th Circuit Court Judge  D. Garrison “Gary” Hill sentenced Trout to a maximum of six months. He probably will spend most of that time at the South Carolina Detention Center in Columbia, according to Trout's lawyer, Ken Gibson.

Hellraiser

Trout's current legal troubles began Feb. 15, 2011 when a state grand jury in Columbia indicted him on charges of misconduct in office and attempting to influence a (grand) juror, but the former policeman and security company owner's whole feisty, five-year term as a Greenville County councilman, 2005-2010, is rife with stories of feuding with higher-ups and charges of corruption and misconduct in public office.

The embattled councilman-elect entered office in January, 2005 near the end of a lengthy, bitter fight to establish a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Greenville County. Citizens crowded county council chambers in protest at the height of that row, but councilmen, led by county administrator Joe Kernell, dithered over the idea, citing cost considerations. Then, after the International Olympic Committee decided that the Olympic Torch should not be carried through Greenville because the county was one of the few, if not the only, counties in the country which had not created a King holiday, Trout along with current county council chairman H.G. “Butch” Kirven was elected and one of their first actions in office was to provide the deciding votes in favor of  the holiday.

So Trout's tenure as a county councilman started off on an adversarial basis with Kernell and bitter King holiday opponents former councilman Scott Case and current council vice chairman Bob Taylor.

Things quickly went downhill from there. One of Trout's 2004 election campaign issues had been the state of Greenville County's $11.6 million roads program, and feuding over that might well be why Tony Trout is in jail today.

Road Czar

In Greenville County, road paving is the province of one company, Ashmore  Brothers,  Inc. The 80-plus-years-old company  provides 90% of the county road paving under terms of a 10-year contract, Judy Wortkoetter, one-time county engineer, testified at Trout's trial.

Trout testified during his trial that citizen complaints about the state of county roads was a chief reason he made it a 2004 campaign issue and, in fact, rumors of corruption were rampant then.

The  Beat, a defunct Greenville free newspaper, tried for months then to confirm rumors that one reason Ashmore Brothers had such a tight hold on road paving was that one Ashmore family member was having an affair with a county employee with oversight over the road program.

David Smith, a Greenville County contractor, close friend of Tony Trout and critic of the road program, took Beat reporters on tours of roads Ashmore Brothers had billed the county for paving but in fact were little more than cow paths. Other roads that were freshly paved led to dead ends and had no lived-in houses along them.

Trout said in court that the reason Ashmore Brothers paved the roads to nowhere was because “no one would complain because no one lived along them.”

The embattled ex-councilman infuriated Kernell and some county council members when he published on a Web site once-every-four-years assessments of the conditions of the roads and then charged those assessments were altered so roads in which some councilmen had an interest were paved while other roads perhaps in greater need of paving were left in disrepair.

“That's just the way things were,” Trout testified. He said he first learned “how things were” when as a young policeman in Mauldin, SC he noted that all the roads in front of city councilmens' houses were kept freshly improved.

Road blocks

The rebel with a cause charged that his work as a councilman was frustrated by Kernell and other county employees. The county administrator in particular, Trout complained in court, would let information the councilman had requested “sit on his desk for two or three weeks” before turning it over.

Much of that requested information concerned the roads program and Trout voiced his impatience at the time in e-mails and telephone conversations with Smith and Beat reporters. Eventually he resorted to sharing, or placing, computer spyware on a computer used by council chairman Kirven.

Meanwhile, animosity between Trout, Kernell  and fellow council member over various issues had  reached the  point where Trout during one open council meeting angrily told Kirven to shove his council gavel up a  body orifice.

The computer spyware, to which Trout retained contact, eventually found its way to the county computer of county administrator Kernell,  and through that contact Trout has asserted he found out that Kernell had on his county computer tapes of supposedly secret county grand jury proceedings and private e-mails with sex-for-hire women in Georgia.

Asked by attorney Gibson during his most recent court appearance how the spyware got on Kernell's county computer, Trout testified, “Kirven did that.”

After  Trout began publishing on the Web suggestive e-mails and photographs he claimed came from Kernell's county computer, he was indicted and a federal jury found him guilty in April, 2009 of four counts of computer spying and wiretapping. The Greenville county council admonished Kernell for his supposed conduct but Trout was sentenced by his federal judge to a year in a West Virginia prison.

The former councilman's February indictment and March, 2011 trial stem from attempts he made to carry his complaints of alleged county corruption before the county grand jury. His sentencing March 31 came less than a year after his release from the prior jail term.

Justice done?

Trout's four-day trial in Greenville March 28-31 before circuit court judge Hill was highlighted by a tearful, two hours of testimony by Trout in his own defense. That rambling monologue, supported by stacks of documents the defendant said supported his position, followed three days of prosecution in which state assistant attorney general Creighton Waters carefully documented how incriminating evidence had been obtained from telephone records and computers confiscated from the homes of Trout and Smith.

Remarkably, Waters raised no objections during Trout's two hours on the witness stand. After the trial he said there had been points to which he might have objected but he did not because he was offended  by suggestions by defense attorney Gibson that Trout's prosecution had been a politically-motivated “treasure hunt.”

“They want Tony Trout's head,” Gibson said at one point, suggesting that a second jailing of the former councilman would discourage other rabble rousers. “They want to shoot the messenger  because they want to prove a point,” Trout testified,  but Waters countered that the matter was an issue which the state “could not overlook.”

Still, he told  Judge Hill in a pre-sentencing statement seeking leniency that Trout “is not the worst person in the world,” and Gibson asked the judge to allow Trout to at least remain free long enough to take his ailing father to a doctor's appointment in Columbia.

Hill denied that request, as he had denied every motion made by the defense in Trout's four day trial.

Was justice served? “Absolutely not,” said a teary-eyed, long-term Greenville county councilwoman Lottie Gibson, who sat through much of Trout's four-day trial. The former councilman “wasn't committing a crime, he was trying to prevent crime,” she lamented. “You try to do what's right (in Greenville County), and look what it gets you.”

2 comments:

  1. I worked hard to keep Tony Trout from being elected. He belongs in prison for a lot more than he's been charged with. He has no character. His charges of corruption might be true but he is a worse criminal than any of the men he accuses. Most of the people he has harmed are afraid of him because he is crazy.

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    1. Go fuck yourself Tony trout was a great man!

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