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Loudoun sheriff’s race gets ugly

Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman has said he focused deputies on higher-level investigations rather than street busts and recently helped form a regional heroin task force. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The apparent embezzlement of more than $250,000 in seized drug money by a Loudoun County sheriff’s deputy, still unresolved after nearly 18 months, is now becoming an issue in the sheriff’s first reelection campaign.

A former top commander for Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman (R) is alleging that Chapman failed to stop the deputy from stealing $50,000 after the problem was noticed and that Chapman has wrongly claimed credit for uncovering the embezzlement. The former commander is also attacking Chapman’s management of budget and staff.

Chapman has fired back at retired Maj. Eric Noble by noting that he sought to fire Noble last year for being untrustworthy, after Noble and another major posted anonymous statements critical of Chapman in the comments section of online news stories and for writing e-mails discussing a potential run against Chapman. The sheriff alleges that Noble undercut him from the start by failing to warn him about budget problems.

Noble, 51, retired in November before he could be fired. He does not deny posting the anonymous comments about the sheriff. He says he did so to correct Chapman’s false public statements, and that Chapman’s mismanagement of the office has damaged its effectiveness and harmed the deputies’ morale. Noble noted that drug arrests have plunged in Loudoun under Chapman, while heroin deaths have soared. Chapman said he has focused deputies on higher-level investigations rather than street busts and recently helped form a regional heroin task force.

Meanwhile, Chapman, 57, seems to have lost some support within the county’s GOP establishment. A former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and Howard County sheriff’s deputy, Chapman swept former sheriff Steve Simpson out of office in 2011 with strong backing from the Republican Party. But just last month, Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman endorsed Noble. Scott K. York, the Republican chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, endorsed Chapman, but others appear to be waiting until after the party convention on May 2 before weighing in.

The race presents Republican voters with the choice of an incumbent outsider vs. a former insider: Chapman, a newcomer to Loudoun who brought in fellow federal agents to help him revamp the agency, and Noble, a 27-year sheriff’s office veteran and holdover from the Simpson era before his departure last fall. Loudoun does not have a police force, so the sheriff is the county’s top law enforcement official and the only police official in Northern Virginia who must run for election.

Much of the tension between the two appears to be wrapped up in personal enmity. Chapman remains outraged that he elevated Noble to one of the top command positions in the 750-deputy department and that Noble soon turned on him and began planning his own run. “I’ve never seen anything this insidious,” Chapman said.

Noble said he initially supported Chapman and did not have a plot to run against him in four years. But he said Chapman ignored his warnings in 2012 that the sheriff’s budget was more than $2 million in the red and took no steps to address it, leading to a heated session and reprimand from the Board of Supervisors in March 2013.

Chapman said Noble, as head of the sheriff’s budget, “never took the time to really fill me in. . . . I took him off the budget because I felt I was blindsided. . . . I had my suspicions I wasn’t being given all the truth.”

Noble responded, “I think it makes it clear he’s not fit to be sheriff of Loudoun County.” He provided documents from an October 2012 meeting with the sheriff, county administrator Tim Hemstreet and other officials, showing the first quarter of the fiscal year was more than $1 million over budget and that Chapman “allowed spending to go on unfettered.” Hemstreet and Michelle Draper, a sheriff’s budget manager who later resigned after clashing with Chapman, both confirmed the substance of the meeting.

Chapman said the meeting was five months before the board meeting, while presidential campaign events were still taxing the county, and “where was Eric from October to March?”

Both men have some solid supporters. York, the longtime chairman of the board of supervisors, said Chapman “has done an outstanding job for the county since being here and has been able to tackle some very key law enforcement issues.”

Plowman, the county prosecutor since 2004, said Noble “has a far better grasp on how the agency operates and a much clearer understanding of the role of a local law enforcement agency” than Chapman. He said Chapman’s claim that he uncovered an apparent $250,000 embezzlement by one of his deputies “could not be further from the truth.”

The political tension stems from the alleged embezzlement of seized drug money by a veteran deputy, long assigned to asset forfeiture, which became publicly known in November 2013 and remains under federal investigation. Plowman said he and an assistant had two meetings with sheriff's officials in February 2013 to discuss a huge backlog of forfeiture cases, which had occurred because the suspected deputy had quietly declined to serve the paperwork on the defendants for many years and the cases had sat in limbo. Chapman said he got the ball rolling in January 2013 when he visited the narcotics unit and found numerous seized vehicles gathering dust, and asked why they were there.

Beginning in February 2013, sheriff’s deputies began serving the paperwork that the deputy had declined to do for years. But the well-liked deputy remained on the job, and records show that cash in an additional 22 cases totaling more than $50,000 disappeared between February and October 2013, when the scheme was finally uncovered, apparently by Draper.

A letter Chapman sent to Draper in December 2013 noted that a court order for $16,212 came to her in August 2013, and Draper found that the deputy had never deposited the money when it was seized, instead doing so that same day. Chapman reprimanded Draper for not reporting the incident up the chain of command, though the deputy’s narcotics lieutenant was aware of the situation and Draper “assumed it was being handled by command staff,” she said.

When a similar incident happened on Oct. 30, 2013, with $34,235 unaccounted for by the same deputy, Draper's boss told her to go to command staff, which she did, according to Chapman's letter. After a Loudoun blog revealed the embezzlement investigation, Chapman issued a news release saying the thefts were uncovered "immediately after Sheriff Chapman restructured units within the Criminal Investigations and Patrol Divisions," which he had announced Oct. 11.

“Clearly it was the existing personnel that discovered it,” Noble said, adding that Chapman should have recognized the problem in February 2013 when the reason for the backlog was identified. Chapman said his commanders were trying to figure out a convoluted process and thought “it was more of a process issue than a theft issue.”

He also thought Noble was involved in a scheme with another major to undermine him beginning soon after he took office in January 2012. But it wasn’t until August 2014, during an unrelated investigation, that he was shown e-mails written by Noble indicating that Noble was planning a run for sheriff.

“It was painful to see the e-mails and things he was accusing me of,” Chapman said.

Chapman dug further and found that Noble had been creating anonymous names and posting statements attacking the sheriff in the comments sections of articles on the Leesburg Today and Loudoun Times-Mirror Web sites. “Very juvenile and unprofessional and demeaning” comments, Chapman said.

Noble admitted writing the e-mails and online comments. “It wasn’t the best judgment,” he said, “but it was a reflection of my frustration with what he was doing to the agency.”