‘Friendliest Town in the South’ ensnared in corruption scandal; top officials charged

A new federal indictment charges two top officials from the mountain town of Tryon with corruption. Prosecutors say a member of the town council extorted money from the town manager.
A new federal indictment charges two top officials from the mountain town of Tryon with corruption. Prosecutors say a member of the town council extorted money from the town manager. Observer

The mountain village of Tryon bills itself as “The Friendliest Town in the South.”

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors accused two officials of being too friendly with each other, leading to federal corruption charges against both.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, former Town Manager Joseph Davis conspired with council member Leroy Miller to funnel money to Miller via a town credit card. Both now face the threat of long prison terms and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Tryon, an artsy hamlet about 100 miles from Charlotte, is a popular tourist stop on the slopes of the Blue Ridge. As with most public corruption stories, prosecutors in the Tryon case describe a collision of ambition and greed.

It started five years ago, documents say. Davis was fire chief at the time. Miller was a member of the town council.

In January 2012, Davis was appointed the interim town manager and later was awarded the permanent job. In April 2012, prosecutors say, Miller approached Davis with a plan: He would lobby other council members to give Davis a $5,000 raise, among other perks. In return, Davis would start paying some of Miller’s bills – including car insurance payments, cable and other utilities.

That arrangement, according to prosecutors, went on for about four years. Miller would solicit payments in person or by phone, text or email; Davis would ante up from his personal accounts – often after Miller had reminded him that he had the power to influence Davis’ salary and his job security.

The terms of the working relationship changed in April 2016, prosecutors say. Davis no longer could afford to meet Miller’s demands with his own money, so investigators say he began using the town credit card to cover the council member’s personal overhead.

In March 2016, Miller attempted to expand the operation, prosecutors say. He recommended that Davis inflate a contractor’s bill by $2,500 and siphon off the windfall to him. Davis did not.

When Davis was replaced by a new town manager, Miller’s requests for money kept coming. Last November, according to prosecutors, he asked for one more utility payment courtesy of town coffers. Davis, by now back in his old job as fire chief, texted back that he couldn’t “run anything through the town anymore with (the new town manager) checking behind me.”

The beginning of the end arrived this year, when Davis told Miller he’d been contacted by the State Bureau of Investigation regarding his use of public money to pay Miller’s bills, prosecutors say. That same month, the FBI also came calling.

Miller told Davis to tell the agents that the money had come from the town’s “needy fund” and that he expected it to be repaid. He also advised Davis to delete all texts and emails to erase any that might be implicating, prosecutors say.

Too late.

Miller made his initial court appearance at noon Tuesday in Asheville. He and Davis both face charges of federal program fraud conspiracy. Miller also is accused of federal program fraud, extortion and witness tampering.

It’s unclear how much money prosecutors think Miller extorted from Davis and his town. But if Miller is convicted, the arrangement is likely to have resulted in a net loss. The conspiracy charge alone carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. With the other three charges tossed in, Miller faces an additional 50 years in prison and $750,000 more in fines.

According to court records, Miller pleaded guilty in 2013 to a conspiracy fraud charge after he bought a food stamp card from its rightful owner and used it to try to buy provisions at a Bi-Lo across the South Carolina line from Tryon.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS