During the course of the ongoing federal investigation into Buncombe County government that began over two years ago, prosecutors have detailed a history of malfeasance by former County Manager Wanda Greene stretching from 2007 until her retirement in 2017. Yet among the hundreds of pages filed on both sides of the case, there was no documentation that a Buncombe elected official had questioned Greene about any of her wrongdoings at the time.
That state of affairs changed after a Sept. 27 court filing in a separate case against former Commissioner Ellen Frost for allegedly misdirecting more than $575,000 in taxpayer money to equestrian concerns located outside of the county. In that document, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards outlined how an unnamed commissioner had asked Greene in 2014 about a different $20,000 allocation that was allegedly given without board approval to build an animal barn at Charles D. Owen High School.
Emails obtained from Buncombe County by Xpress on Oct. 24 revealed that the commissioner in question was Holly Jones, who served on the Board of Commissioners 2008-16. Contacted on Oct. 27, Jones said she had forgotten the exchange with Greene but that the emails were consistent with her approach to oversight of county operations.
Jones explained that her suspicions were raised by an email from Owen Principal Meg Turner thanking Greene and the entire board for the money. The former commissioner says that the message, sent on March 18, 2014, fell outside the usual Buncombe budget cycle and that she hadn’t recognized the barn project from previous board discussions.
“I don’t have a perfect recall of items by a long shot, but I’m pretty well versed in, particularly in the course of a year, what we would’ve approved of,” Jones said. “As an expense, it wasn’t familiar to me.”
On receiving Turner’s email, Jones asked Greene what project Turner was referencing. When Greene responded that it was “animal service money to help with [the] horse population,” Jones followed up by asking what specific budget the funding had come from. Greene then reached out to Frost, and the two agreed to tell Jones that the money had come from a contract with the Asheville Humane Society. Prosecutors allege that both of these claims were false.
After Jones did not respond with further questions, Frost sent Greene another email. “Like you said earlier, silence is a beautiful sound,” the message read.
Jones said she did not recall following up further after receiving the information from Greene. She could also not remember if she had shared her concerns with other commissioners or county staff members. Buncombe County did not provide any other emails from the time involving Greene that mentioned Owen High School or the barn in response to an Xpress records request.
When asked what it meant to be the only commissioner currently on record as flagging an alleged Greene misdeed, Jones said her former colleagues may have asked questions via phone or in person and that she didn’t want to speak for them. However, she noted that Buncombe government’s internal culture was not especially conducive to accountability.
“I had a hard time getting, at least when I served 2008-12, anybody to care about pretty significant budgetary issues,” Jones said. “That first term particularly, I was not privy to a lot of things because they knew I would ask questions. So I was kept out of the loop on a lot of things early on.”