RALEIGH — Alcohol Law Enforcement – the very name sounds obsolete, a remnant from an era of moonshiners and revenue agents playing cat and mouse.
But in North Carolina, the ALE is busier than ever, covering a surprisingly vast legal and geographic territory. It is the only state law enforcement agency whose jurisdiction includes all of North Carolina along with the authority to pursue any offense.
Its agents made 10,000 arrests last year, the agency reports, in operations ranging from chasing fugitives, to wiretapping, to breaking up gangs, to taking guns and drugs off the streets. Its reach is restrained only by its relatively small size – 112 agents. For an agency whose roots are in the repeal of Prohibition, ALE today is also busy trying to overcome its popular image and prove it is still relevant.
“The biggest hindrance ALE has is the name ALE,” said Director John Ledford. “People sometimes just don’t understand what we do.”
It has also generated an outsized share of controversy over the years. Two of its directors resigned amid revelations they purchased exotic weaponry. Earlier this year, the current director was in a public standoff with State Auditor Beth Wood.
Wood accused Ledford of trying to thwart her office from pursuing an investigation that eventually determined he and one of his top deputies improperly drove their state cars home to the mountains on weekends. Wood’s investigative report suggested the ALE officials’ obstruction was so extreme it was potentially a criminal offense.
On Thursday, a story in The News & Observer reported suspicions had also been raised that ALE agents had illegally obtained phone records while investigating a state employee suspected of impersonating a law enforcement officer in a cellphone call in 2009.
The agency wouldn’t comment for that story, but on Friday, the state Department of Public Safety said the accusations were investigated in December 2010 and were not substantiated.
A spokeswoman for the department said agents focused on Verizon cellphone records instead of making a blanket request from several companies because Verizon owned the tower closest to where the employee made the call, not because an agent’s wife who worked for that phone company had tipped them off, as had been alleged.
The disclosure followed Ledford’s frustration during an interview Wednesday over not being able to publicly comment on the audit or the phone records, because both are pending legal matters. But, he said, it comes with running an agency in the state capital.
“A lot of times in Raleigh, we let other people define who we are,” Ledford said. “As director of a law enforcement agency – just as the colonel of the Highway Patrol – we are always going to have to make controversial decisions. All you can do is take the facts as you know them to be and do what you believe to be morally and legally correct.”
Affable and open in the interview, Ledford said he was proud of what he has accomplished in redefining the agency to deal with an increasingly dangerous mission, which has in some ways changed but in fundamental ways remains the same.
The state’s first Alcohol Beverage Commission was created in 1937 to coordinate post-Prohibition laws. But it wasn’t until 1949 that a separate enforcement section was formed, although it didn’t have full powers of arrest until 1971. ALE was formed in1977.
Under Ledford, who is 47, ALE has branched out into areas not traditionally associated with the alcohol-enforcement agency, some of it influenced by current policing theories that focus on the causes of crime rather than just on criminals. For instance, Ledford brought back a nuisance abatement program that targets problem buildings, such as nightclubs or motels, and shuts them down through civil procedures.
Responding to some of those hot spots, he created a Special Operations Group, a SWAT-like team that serves high-risk warrants, chases fugitives and conducts technical surveillance. He also set up a Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, which specializes in crossing county lines to find convicts with a history of violence who have skipped probation or parole. Since it started operating in April, it has caught more than 60 violent offenders, according to ALE.
And he has expanded a polygraph unit, which has taken on a larger role in conducting internal affairs investigations for other agencies in the state Department of Public Safety.
Yet, more than half of its arrests are still for alcohol violations (amounting to about 6,000 last year). Less than one-quarter are for drugs, and the rest are for minor offenses such as fake identification, tobacco sales and gambling.
ALE has always done the same basic work, Ledford said, but it has adapted to a culture that has seen more guns and more drugs in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. The ALE also continues to work closely with local, regional and federal law enforcement agencies, particularly with smaller police and sheriff departments. “We are a sought-after agency,” he said.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, said local authorities are glad to have ALE agents, especially since ALE has more authority to go after state-regulated businesses than police and deputies.
“The big challenge with ALE is they have so many duties and so few personnel,” Caldwell said Friday. “Over the years, they’ve picked up additional responsibilities.”
Ledford knew he was assuming control of an agency that had seen its share of controversy. When he arrived in late 2009, he had risen through the ranks of law enforcement. A native of Madison County in the mountains next to Tennessee, Ledford became a Buncombe County sheriff’s deputy and then an ALE agent, and in 1998 at the age of 33 unseated the 14-year sheriff of Madison County.
While hardly a major donor, Ledford over the years has been a modest and reliable contributor to the right Democratic candidates for statewide office, from Dennis Wicker to Walter Dalton. He was re-elected sheriff twice, and remained in office until Gov. Bev Perdue appointed him director of ALE.
When he arrived in Raleigh, he assumed control of an agency that was in the midst of a crisis. His predecessor, William Chandler, resigned amid a controversy over expensive rifles and handguns that he authorized for agents. Ledford got rid of the weapons – including 150 Kimber pistols – because they were unreliable.
“They may have been great weapons. They weren’t law enforcement weapons,” Ledford said. “I told the secretary (of the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety) as long as I’m director of ALE, we bought our last guns, unless there’s something special we’ve got to have.”
Until now, public scandals under Ledford have been nonexistent – except, perhaps, for the criticism over his agents’ raiding a Willie Nelson concert just before he was scheduled to perform in Duplin County in 2010 and citing six members of his entourage for minor marijuana and moonshine possession. The singer canceled the show at the last minute, but claimed it wasn’t in retaliation.
Then in June, the state auditor’s report slammed Ledford for blocking its investigation into his use of his state car. The state Department of Public Safety took exception to the auditor’s report, saying the problem was with the auditor, not the ALE director.
Ledford has hired attorneys on his own to protect his reputation.
“I don’t want people to define me,” he said.
Ledford is looking at wrapping up his law enforcement career in a few years. As someone who serves at the pleasure of the governor, and with an election coming up, he knows his future is uncertain. “I’d rather be here three years and accomplish something than stay for 20 and have nothing to show for it,” he said.
News researcher David Raynor contributed.