New charges against former County Manager Wanda Greene marked the beginning of a cascading series of changes in Buncombe County governance in recent days.
Allegations that Greene misappropriated $2.3 million to purchase whole-life insurance policies for herself, her son, Michael Greene, and several other members of county staff came to light on June 5 with the release of a new federal indictment. The new charges allege that Wanda Greene bought the policies with county money without approval from the Board of Commissioners as required by state law.
Previously, Wanda and Michael Greene had been accused of using county purchase cards for personal purposes.
A shift in management
The June 5 indictments hit the news as the county Board of Commissioners met in its regular biweekly session. Board members added discussion of the new charges to their previously scheduled closed session and announced upon returning to open session that the county would soon file civil charges against the two Greenes.
Yet even before the county’s lawsuit was filed, a new development emerged. On June 11, the county announced that Mandy Stone, who took over as county manager shortly after Wanda Greene’s retirement on July 1, 2017, would retire. Stone was among the county employees for whom Greene had purchased a supplemental life insurance policy.
The county said Stone notified board Chair Brownie Newman of her decision to leave county employment on June 8. Newman later told Xpress Stone will be taking time off until her effective retirement date on July 1.
The Board of Commissioners also said that all current and former employees except Wanda and Michael Greene had assigned the insurance policies to the county after learning that Greene had not followed the proper legal requirements for issuing the benefits and that the board did not approve them.
On June 12, the county filed its civil lawsuit against the Greenes.
The next day, the Board of Commissioners met in a three-hour-long closed session to discuss the selection of a new interim manager. After the meeting, Newman announced, “The commission has had some very good deliberations this afternoon about the interim county manager position, but we’re not quite through with the process yet.”
The board is scheduled to appoint an interim manager during its regular meeting on June 19. Newman anticipates the Board of Commissioners will launch a concerted search for a new county manager, one that he hopes will involve input from the community and county staff. The search, he says, could take four to six months, though it could extend to early 2019
“I think the point would be that we really want to do it right,” Newman says. “Speaking for myself, I really don’t want to rush it.”
Commissioners have complimented Stone’s management style during the county budget process this year, which is the first budget cycle the board has weathered since Greene’s departure in 2017.
“I’m really tired of people saying that bringing Ms. Stone to where she’s at was a bad deal,” said Commissioner Mike Fryar on June 5 after a presentation of the county’s proposed FY 2019 budget. Stone was promoted to the role of county manager after serving as director of Buncombe County Health and Human Services. “It wasn’t. The wool was pulled over our eyes a year ago by Ms. Greene, and the fact is I’m proud to have this lady run this show.”
“I have the trust, and hopefully the rest of the board will go with me, that Ms. Stone is going to guide this county in the best way that she can,” Fryar said.
Commissioner Ellen Frost also expressed strong support for Stone during the June 5 meeting.
“Commissioner Fryar, you and I don’t always agree on things … but I want to thank you for your remarks,” she said. “Mandy Stone inherited a mess. A horrible, horrible mess.”
Commissioners indicated during their May 15 meeting that the budget process was far more transparent and accessible this year than it had been in the past. Newman said commissioners for the first time had access to a full hard copy of the county manager’s proposed budget this year. “It’s a really simple idea, but it’s literally not been done this way in the past,” he said.
Speaking to Xpress, Newman reiterated the board’s supportive comments. “I think that the budget process has been handled in a much better way this year than it has in the past,” he said, giving much of the credit to Stone. “She’s put in over 30 years at the county so she’s certainly eligible to retire, and she made the decision to do so, so I don’t have much more to add to it than that.”
A new lawsuit
Buncombe County’s civil lawsuit against Greene represents its attempt to recoup money it claims was misappropriated by the former county manager. “We believe this money is owed back to taxpayers,” Newman says, “and we’re going to do everything we can through the legal processes to do that.”
In addition to the allegations contained in federal indictments that Greene misused county credit cards and misappropriated $2.3 million of county money to purchase whole-life insurance policies, the county also claims former board Chair David Gantt’s signature was forged on forms that allowed Greene to receive thousands of dollars worth of retention incentive payments from the county.
The county says Greene received more than $240,000 in retention incentive payments over an 11-month period from August 2016 through June 2017.
The county’s lawsuit says that at the time of Greene’s retirement, none of the county commissioners knew about Greene’s alleged use of her county purchase card for personal purchases. The lawsuit says board member also weren’t aware of any of the financial improprieties of which Greene and her son would eventually be accused upon her retirement.
Gantt said in a statement that he has total confidence in investigators scrutinizing the alleged fraud and embezzlement schemes. “I will continue to fully cooperate with both offices to provide any information and/or testimony that might further their progress,” he said in the statement. “The people of Buncombe County have an absolute right to be presented with all details of this sad chapter in our history.”
Since Greene’s departure in 2017, several Buncombe County officials have left or declared their intention to leave:
- County Attorney Bob Deutsch resigned on Oct. 31, 2017. He was replaced by Burnsville attorney Heather Hockaday during the board’s meeting on June 5.
- Buncombe County Planning Director and Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton retired effective Jan. 1. Creighton was one of eight employees who received one of the whole-life insurance policies. He has been replaced by Nathan Pennington, who has worked for the county since 2015 and previously worked for the city of Asheville.
- On May 30, the county received a letter of resignation from Chief Financial Officer Tim Flora, who has worked for the county for 10 years. His resignation became official on June 15. Flora’s resignation came about a week after a closed session on May 22, in which commissioners “reviewed the performance of the Finance Director,” according to the closed-session agenda. No action was taken during that meeting. Flora was the beneficiary of one of the whole-life insurance policies. The board has selected Eric Hardy to serve as CFO on an interim basis. Hardy has worked as controller and the project manager for the selection of a financial and human capital information system with Buncombe County.
- Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes, who has served in that position since 1983, will retire effective June 30. Lamar Joyner, who has worked for the last 11 years as the deputy director of the board of elections in Forsyth County, will replace Hughes.
- Human Resources Director Lisa Eby told reporters by email on June 14 that she would retire on Sept. 1. She gave Stone notice of her retirement on April 22. Originally, Eby said she was planning to retire on Dec. 1, 2017, but stayed on because Stone asked for her help with the management transition. “As a part of her team, I believe we have done many things in the past year to right what was wrong [and] to put in place practices that are open and accountable to the public and to build a management infrastructure that is sound and supports the 1,600 county professionals who deliver core services to our residents each day.” Eby said she is retiring without an incentive from the county and with partial retirement benefits. “Despite everything that is going on, I still believe in the power of local government,” she said. “Unlike national politics, we do have choice at a local level for building the kind of community we want to live in.”