Commissioners trim outside counsel to cut cost

CUTTING COSTS: In a 6-1 vote, commissioners decided Oct. 16 to stop using the services of an Asheville attorney who has been assisting the board with matters related to the federal investigation into former County Manager Wanda Greene and other former county employees. Photo by Arianna Moore

Citing concerns about cost, commissioners decided Oct. 16 to stop using the services of a local attorney who had been advising the board on matters involving the federal criminal investigation into Wanda Greene and other former Buncombe County employees.

Board Chair Brownie Newman says Asheville attorney Scott Jones was one of the finalists for the county attorney position that Bob Deutsch vacated in late October last year. The board ultimately appointed Heather Hockaday county attorney in June.

A representation agreement Jones signed with the county is dated May 19. According to invoices, Jones has charged the county $30,037.

Newman said commissioners wanted to retain Jones on a temporary basis. Part of the motivation to hire Jones, Newman says, had to do with his experience dealing with federal investigations, but his assistance did extend beyond that domain.

Jones offered legal advice on the county’s September decision to defer economic development incentives for Linamar, Newman says. He also assisted with public records requests from local media after the county released statements in June — one from the Board of Commissioners and another from county staff — that contained conflicting information.

Commissioner Mike Fryar disputed the process by which Jones was hired and argued that he had been relied on for too many issues.

“We’ve got him looking at economic development, we’ve got him looking at everything. We’ve even got him looking at resolutions,” Fryar said. “What are we doing? This lady down here can give us a better idea of that,” he said, referring to Hockaday. “That’s why we hired her, and I’m going to support her.”

Additional invoices show Buncombe County has also been charged a total of $65,092 since March for the services of attorney Ron Payne, who has been working to recoup the money the county says was stolen by Greene and other former county employees. Payne was retained by Stone while she was still county manager. She is now one of the former employees that Payne is suing on behalf of the county.

“Part of, I think, the rationale to have Scott,” Newman said during the meeting, “was to have an attorney who was 100 percent representing the county commission, not the county manager, not county staff, but to make sure this body got sound advice about how we navigate a very unusual situation that the county is in.”

In July, the county announced that Payne had secured a $2 million settlement from Guardian Life Insurance Co., the company Greene allegedly used to purchase $2.3 million in whole-life insurance policies for herself, her son and several other county employees.

Beach-Ferrara said the division of labor up to this point — in which Payne has worked to recover funds, Hockaday has offered advice on process matters, and Jones has provided input on issues related to the federal investigation — has worked.

Given that the federal investigation is not over, Beach-Ferrara said, “Our responsibilities and our interests are best served by having an attorney who has specific experience on federal investigations representing the Board of Commissioners specifically to advise us of our responsibilities, duties and specific issues related to governance.”

The board voted 6-1, with Beach-Ferrara casting the dissenting vote. Newman says Payne will absorb Jones’ responsibilities as a result of the decision.

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About David Floyd
David Floyd was a reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press.

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