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Former sheriff pleads guilty

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

RALEIGH—After proclaiming his innocence for just shy of one year, former sheriff Ronald Hewett proclaimed his guilt in federal court Monday morning.

Since first being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on June 7, 2007, Hewett has maintained he did not know the scope or the nature of the investigation—and his innocence.

But Monday morning Hewett admitted to not only knowing the scope of the investigation, but also to interfering with it.

As part of an eight-page plea agreement signed in U.S. District Court, Hewett pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice before U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt.

When Britt asked Hewett how he pleads, Hewett responded, “Guilty, your honor.”

Hewett was charged with obstruction of justice on May 8.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Hewett “did corruptly endeavor to influence, obstruct, and impede the due administration of justice, specifically, by taking actions intended to influence, obstruct and impede the testimony of grand jury witnesses.”

The charge stems back to June 2007, when 25 people, mainly sheriff’s deputies, were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Duffy said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office began investigating allegations of Hewett’s misuse of public funds in December 2006, Duffy explained.

But Hewett’s obstruction and interference with the federal investigation began just days after the first subpoenas were served, Duffy said.

Before Britt accepted Hewett’s guilty plea, he gave Duffy the floor to present what the U.S. Attorney’s Office could prove Hewett did, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

After reading the U.S. Attorney’s Office case against Hewett, Britt asked Hewett if he agreed with the government’s case.

Hewett agreed.

USA vs. Hewett

Had the case gone trial rather than Hewett signing a plea agreement, Duffy said he could prove Hewett misused public funds, forced deputies to do manual labor for his personal benefit, obstructed justice, forced deputies to work on his political campaign, tampered with a grand jury witness, intimidated grand jury witnesses and interfered with the federal investigation.

The case would prove Hewett’s wife Julie and son Justin, a Holden Beach police officer, were also involved.

“Hewett and his wife had their son deliver a note to a grand jury witness, which contained the words the witness would need to read in grand jury in order to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Just days after the first subpoenas were served, Hewett circulated an office-wide memo urging grand jury witnesses not to discuss their testimony.

In a memo dated June 11, 2007, Hewett states, “I have obtained counsel. They have advised me to comply with the subpoena and not to discuss this matter with other individuals under subpoena.”

Duffy described the sheriff’s office as a “hostile place to work,” during the last few years of Hewett’s tenure as sheriff, and increasing after subpoenas were served.

Hewett would “pump other deputies,” to see who testified at the federal grand jury, and to seek out who was complying with the federal investigation.

Hewett would continually remind deputies he could fire at-will and he made it possible for them to pay their mortgages, he said.

Hewett also expected each deputy to repay him for that.

“What would you do without a job?” Duffy said Hewett asked sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Mark Trull.

Hewett brought a chaplain into a staff meeting who told deputies “not to cooperate with the evil on the witness stand.”

Hewett retaliated against deputies who testified at the grand jury, Duffy said, including former Lt. Mickey Smith, who was no longer allowed in staff meetings and was told to get a personal vehicle, despite being the SWAT commander and the head of the drug enforcement unit.

The investigation into the misuse of public funds included Hewett forcing the entire drug unit to lay rocks at Hewett’s home while he rode along in a four-wheeler, he said.

Other instances of misusing public funds included Hewett forcing deputies to plant trees at his home, to guard his home while Hewett’s driveway was paved, to guard his son’s home while an alarm system was installed, to campaign for Hewett, to paint campaign signs and to perform other physical labor for Hewett.

Finally, Duffy said the U.S. Attorney’s Office could prove Hewett tampered with grand jury witnesses.

In an Aug. 16 2007 audio recording, Hewett says to Capt. Kevin Holden, “If they get me on that damn witness tampering damn deal, I’m gone.”

Holden replied, “You ain’t tampered with no witnesses.”

“Oh hell yes. Look it up…it’s a damn federal statue.”

With that, Duffy said the U.S. Government could prove beyond a reasonable doubt, Hewett influenced, obstructed and impeded with the federal investigation and the administration of justice.

“The investigation and prosecution of public corruption is one of our office’s highest priorities. Ronald Hewett unlawfully obstructed a grand jury investigation into corruption of his office, and he’s being held accountable for it in federal court,” U.S. Attorney George Holding said in the press release.

“He’s being held accountable for those acts of corruption by the charges the state authorities have brought.”

Conditions of release

As a condition of his release, Hewett was required to surrender any firearms, surrender his passport, not to drink any alcohol and to, “undergo medical or psychiatric treatment and/or remain in as institution as follows,” as directed by a U.S. Probation Officer.

Hewett will be sentenced September 8, 2008. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Hewett and his attorney W. Douglas Parsons declined to comment after the court proceeding.

To view Hewett’s plea agreement, waiver of indictment or conditions of release order visit the Beacon’s Web site at www.brunswickbeacon.com.