Two face prisonfor selling deputy jobs[Shelby County, TN]

Louis Graham and Mickie Anderson; The Commercial Appeal
December 20, 2000, Wednesday, Final Edition
Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal
The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
December 20, 2000, Wednesday, Final Edition

(SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn.) --The former chief deputy of the Shelby County Sheriff's Department and a politically connected volunteer face prison terms for selling deputy jobs, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeal.

The high court's decision sends former chief deputy A. Ray Mills and Memphis grocer Stephen Toarmina, an unpaid department adviser, back to a federal judge in Memphis for sentencing on conspiracy, money-laundering and extortion charges.

The most serious violation carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

The decision, filed this month in Washington, ends a winding legal trail that began in 1995 with an anonymous tip to Harold Hays, the department's newly installed internal affairs director.

Hays took the allegations to the FBI and a lengthy investigation ensued. Both men were convicted for the scheme to collect as much as $3,900 in exchange for the deputy jobs, but the convictions were set aside by a federal judge minutes after the jury came back.

The judge concluded prosecutors didn't prove that the pair's actions affected interstate commerce as required by federal law.

Prosecutors appealed and the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the convictions. Sentencing was postponed pending a review by the nation's highest court.

Mills, 53, has served 24 months of a 37-month sentence on one related charge at a federal prison in Atlanta. Toarmina, 42, has been free since the August 1998 jury verdict.

Neither man could be reached Tuesday. However, lawyer A C Wharton, representing Mills, said he was disappointed by the high court's decision.

"We obviously regret the result, but as we well know now, rulings of the U. S. Supreme Court are final,'' Wharton said.

Wharton and Toarmina's attorneys had sought the high court review because federal appeals courts around the United States were split on the interstate commerce issue.

Wharton described it as an "area of law still evolving.''

The yet unscheduled sentencing will end another embarrassing chapter for the Sheriff's Department, which has endured numerous problems during Sheriff A. C. Gilless's tenure.

The department's current chief deputy, Don Wright, said officials want the case behind them.

"I hate that it happened," he said. "It gave the sheriff's office a black eye. We're just trying to live it down, trying to rebuild and move on."

Mills served as Gilless's second-in-command and effectively ran the day-to-day operations.

Though Toarmina was unpaid and untrained, he exercised considerable power and influence in the department, often patrolling the county in a department squad car, wearing a sidearm, uniform and flashing a badge.

Hays, a former FBI agent, said he began hearing of Toarmina's curious power soon after he became the department's internal affairs director.

Hays, who contended he was fired for taking the information to the FBI, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Shelby County. The county disputed the claim but agreed to a $650,000 settlement.

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