Buncombe government responds to corruption investigations with changes

EAR TO THE FLOOR: Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, left, Al Whitesides, middle, and Brownie Newman listen to citizen feedback during a county manager input session on Aug. 27 at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Government

Indictments released over the last several months contain plenty of juicy details about alleged corruption in Buncombe County government. Among other scandalous allegations, we’ve learned about trips to locales such as Key West taken by top county staffers in exchange for county contracts; the 19 DVDs and nine BlackBerry accessories Michael Greene allegedly purchased on his county credit card; and items — including wine, car tires, cell phones, a heated lotion dispenser and lingerie — allegedly bought at various retailers with county money.

No matter how salacious, however, the particulars of the grand jury’s charges are secondary to a more pressing issue: What has Buncombe County done to patch up the system of controls that allowed the alleged financial misconduct to happen in the first place? 

“What we’re trying to do is build out a series of check and balances that have not previously existed,” Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara told a crowd of county citizens during an input session on Aug. 30, “and that’s a big task in terms of creating not just policies but also the infrastructure to accompany them.”

While a number of county policies and procedures have changed, some commissioners say there’s work still to be done. Xpress takes a look at some of the steps elected officials and top staff have taken to guard against future corruption and what policies the Board of Commissioners plans to address in the immediate future.

Top-down changes

County officials seem to agree on one thing: Former County Manager Wanda Greene had too much authority.

“She was so powerful,” Frost said during a listening session she hosted with Commissioner Mike Fryar on Aug. 23. “She was thought of as one of the top county managers in the country, and it was told to both of us that, ‘Oh, you can’t micromanage the county manager.’”

Greene apparently wasn’t a big fan of scrutiny.

“She told me one day that I ask too many questions,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides, whose tenure on the board started in 2016, “and I just pointed out to her that I worked in banking for 40 years, and I never had anybody who worked for me tell me that I ask too many questions.”

Commissioners are now looking to put checks on the county manager position — measures that put extra eyes on how the manager handles money. The county has placed a cap on the discretionary bonuses the manager can unilaterally award to employees at $1,000 and now requires bonuses to be disclosed to the Board of Commissioners and the public within a certain time frame.

Board Chair Brownie Newman says these changes were motivated by Greene’s actions in FY 2017 — when she handed out large bonuses to high-paid county employees but gave little to lower-paid staff. The Board of Commissioners, Newman says, had directed her to give the extra cash to the lowest-paid employees.

“That definitely was something we think was abused,” he says.

The county has also adopted a policy to require the Board of Commissioners’ approval for spending economic development funds, Newman says. The policy also states that the funds must be spent in Buncombe County.

Additionally, the county now requires the county manager to receive approval from the Board of Commissioners before he or she moves large amounts of money between different county funds.

“Otherwise, the budget planning process is just not really that meaningful,” Newman explains.

Traveling lighter

In an indictment filed on Aug. 7, prosecutors detail 20 trips that former county officials — including Wanda Greene, forearm County Manager Mandy Stone and from Assistant County Manager and Planning Director Jon Creighton — allegedly took on the dime of contractor Joseph Wiseman Jr. in exchange for county contracts.

Greene allegedly went on 17 of those trips, Stone on seven and Creighton on all 20.

Some of the trips coincided with official conferences in the area the defendants were visiting, “which the defendants used as an excuse or cover story to explain their travels, while most of the trips had no relationship at all to any official business,” the indictment says.

Staff updated commissioners on changes they had made to the county’s travel policy during a meeting on April 10, about four months before the indictment revealed those allegations.

Before 2018, the county’s travel policies had not been changed since 2012, according to the document’s revision history. The policy was originally adopted in 2008 by the Board of Commissioners (see “Records request sheds light on city, county travel reimbursements,” Xpress, March 29, 2017).

Under the revised policy, all travel for positions appointed by the Board of Commissioners — the county manager, the clerk and the finance director — must be approved by the chair of the board or the vice-chair. The policy also says that the board will be advised if any of these officials travel out of the state or out of the country on county business.

The changes also make it necessary for employees to receive advance approval from the county manager, the assistant county manager and their department director before going on a foreign trip on county business.

In response to kickback allegations contained in the Aug. 7 indictment, Wood said in August that the county would also be revisiting its purchasing policies in the near future.

“You had a process in place where some of the people that were doing the negotiating of contracts … also had the authority to approve them,” Wood said. “And that was not a good process.”

Policing p-cards

Wanda Greene allegedly used her county issued procurement card, as well as p-cards belonging to her subordinates, to make thousands of dollars worth of personal purchases.

Greene had the authority to review and approve her own p-card purchases due to her position as the county manager, according to an indictment filed by prosecutors on April 4. The indictment says she was not required to submit her purchases for review by the Board of Commissioners.

SEEKING INPUT: Interim County Manager George Wood, left, speaks during a county manager input session Aug. 23 at Weaverville Town Hall. Commissioners Ellen Frost and Mike Fryar fielded questions and comments from members of the audience about the county’s response to the Wanda Greene investigation and the qualities that make a good manager. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Government

Similarly, the indictment says Michael Greene, Wanda’s son and an information systems security officer with the county, also had the power to review and approve his own p-card purchases — a practice that the indictment says was not typical for an employee at Michael’s level.

Along with changes to its travel policy, the county announced on April 10 that it had revised elements of the policy that governs p-card use.

“This is a program that has a lot of benefit to the county, but it also has a lot of risk so it requires a pretty comprehensive policy,” Dustin Clark, a business officer with the county, told commissioners on April 10. (Clark was appointed the county’s deputy finance officer in August.)

The county previously had an across-the-board monthly transaction limit of $10,000. Now, p-card use has been divided into four tiers. Each tier has a different monthly limit, with tier-one employees capped at $1,000, and tier-three employees capped at $10,000. Tier-four employees are allowed to purchase more than $10,000 worth of items in a single month.

“As opposed to one limit being used for everyone by default, that may be a little bit more than is necessary for some use cases,” Clark told commissioners.

Any request to increase the monthly limit on a p-card must now be made in writing by the employee’s department director to the p-card program administrator.

Additional changes:

  • Employees that have a p-card or verify a p-card transaction must read the new policy and receive training from the finance department before they can use the cards. They will receive recurring training, which must be completed for the cardholder to keep the card.
  • A report on p-card activity by members of the Board of Commissioners and positions appointed by the board, which includes the county manager, will be made available for public inspection. The policy specifies the disclosure will happen, at minimum, on a semi-annual basis. The plan has been to include this information with the county’s quarterly financial reports. The county hopes to deliver the next report before the end of September.
  • P-cards that have no reported activity over a 12-month period may be deactivated or have their monthly limit reduced.

Gift that stops giving

Wanda Greene has also been accused of directing subordinates to use their p-cards to purchase more than $75,000 worth of gift cards. According to the April 4 indictment, Greene also used her own p-card to purchase gift cards, some of which were handed off to other people — including a former county commissioner.

The plethora of new and revised policies introduced during the Board of Commissioners meeting on April 10 includes a brand-new policy related to gift card use.

The new policy prohibits officials from purchasing a gift card for an employee, using a p-card to purchase a gift card and providing gift cards as payment for goods and services. “Gift cards provided to suppliers in this manner could be considered a kickback,” the policy reads, “as no invoices can be tied to the gift card in the general ledger.”

Four departments — Health and Human Services, Soil and Water Conservation, the Sustainability Office, and the Buncombe County Service Foundation — will retain their ability to use gift cards under certain circumstances.

Providing cover

In January 2009, the county’s then-internal auditor Tim Flora found that Michael Greene had made inappropriate purchases on his p-card, according to the indictment filed on April 4. He concluded that these purchases constituted “systemic fraud against the county” because Greene had used the card for personal benefit.

Flora prepared a report and referred the matter to Finance Director Donna Clark and Wanda Greene. The indictment says the county canceled Michael’s p-card and ordered him to reimburse the county $1,579.21, but no other disciplinary action was taken against him. At the same time, no evidence has emerged to suggest that Flora faced reprisals as a result of calling attention to the improper card use.

Nevertheless, since the investigation began, Buncombe County has taken steps to insulate the internal auditor from pressure by top county officials.

Personnel changes approved by the Board of Commissioners in August give the audit committee more power over the recruitment and oversight of the internal auditor, making it necessary for officials to consult with the group before the auditor can be fired.

The county has slightly altered the composition of the audit committee, removing a position originally set aside for a member of the county management team and replacing it with a second county commissioner. Before the change, the member of the management team serving on the audit committee was former Budget Director Diane Price, who retired effective Sept. 1. Before Price, the management team member was Wanda Greene.

What’s next?

The indictments released over the last several months revealed additional weaknesses in county systems and policies that the county has yet to address.

Wood proposed in a memo to commissioners in September that the county severely reduce the maximum number off ours that staff can sell back to the county. This policy was allegedly abused by Greene, Creighton and Stone.

The county paid Greene more than $360,000 from 2011 to 2017 for 3,216 hours of unused leave, according to the Aug. 7 indictment. Stone received about $130,000 for unused leave from 2007 to 2018, and Creighton received about $89,000 for unused leave from 2011 to 2017. The indictment says Greene, Stone and Creighton did not use these annual leave hours for the trips Wiseman funded.

Commissioners have also committed to a forensic audit of county finances and internal controls (once the federal investigation is complete) and are gearing up to file a second civil lawsuit to recoup money from Greene, Creighton, Stone and Wiseman.

On top of everything, additional indictments could still be brought against those already charged or other county employees. “I was hoping it would be over by now,” Whitesides said in August, “but now that they’re digging, this will be around for a while, I’m afraid.”

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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3 thoughts on “Buncombe government responds to corruption investigations with changes

  1. jason

    Every single person involved with Buncombe County Government should be investigated.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      they are certainly a very UNpopular bunch these days, and the county commissioners just act like they’ve done what they should have done… no real leadership around here at all. it’s rather pathetic…city, county, state level…just ineffective place holders.

    • CCitizenBuncome

      That’s idiotic. There are regular workers that have nothing to do with any of that. Their pay would obviously show that. Everyone in a position of managing an employee to the top of the chain….including commissioners sure.

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