Buncombe County resident Dave Heim is a betting man. Soon before Wanda Greene was scheduled to be sentenced on a slew of federal corruption charges, Heim said, he gathered with fellow veterans at a local Waffle House to wager how long the former Buncombe County manager would spend in prison.
Heim’s own estimate was conservative, as he shared with Xpress on the limestone steps of the federal courthouse prior to the sentencing hearing. “I think the fix is in,” he said, projecting that Greene would be given only four years of a maximum 33-year sentence for federal program fraud, making a false tax return and receiving kickbacks.
Thanks to the Aug. 28 decision of U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad, Heim is out $2. Calling Greene’s activities a “tragic waste on a personal level” with “horrific consequences for the county of Buncombe,” Conrad sentenced her to seven years in federal prison and ordered her to pay a $100,000 fine.
Conrad described Greene as “an architect of this culture of corruption” in Buncombe County and said she exhibited “flagrant disrespect for the rules” as he proclaimed the sentence. From over $58,000 of personal purchases on county credit cards beginning in 2007 to the 2017 purchase of $2.3 million in life insurance policies using money earmarked for settlements of civil rights lawsuits, he said her behavior had escalated “out of control” during her time as the county’s top unelected official.
Four for four
Four others indicted for illegal activities involving Greene — her son and former county Business Intelligence Manager Michael Greene, former County Manager Mandy Stone, former Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton and former county contractor Joseph Wiseman, Jr. — all left Conrad’s courtroom with active prison time, a year of supervised release and a financial penalty. “Maybe we’ll have to decide who goes where,” Conrad joked, after all of the convicted felons had requested prison assignments close to Asheville.
Wiseman was handed a $15,000 fine and a sentence of 37 months, at the low end of the range recommended by federal officials, with Conrad balancing his “heinous” participation in kickbacks against his “early and truthful cooperation” with prosecutors. Stone received 33 months and a $15,000 fine; although Conrad reduced that sentence based on her limited role in awarding contracts to Wiseman, he said her conduct showed “entitlement” to using taxpayer money for personal benefit.
Although Conrad noted that Creighton was more culpable in the kickback scheme than was Stone, he gave the former official only 18 months of prison time, along with a $25,000 fine. Prosecutor Richard Edwards had recommended a reduced sentence due to Creighton’s “extraordinary substantial assistance” in the investigation, saying that in nearly 35 years of experience, he’d “never had this level of defendant [cooperation], white-collar or otherwise.”
Michael Greene received the lightest sentence, just six months of imprisonment and a $5,000 fine, as punishment for his misuse of county credit cards, which federal officials regarded as the least serious of the crimes being considered. Conrad did not mince words in handing down the judgment, however, saying Greene had a “sense of arrogance” and “a history of misuse of position as a county official.”
Greene’s attorney, Ted Besen, had asked Conrad not to impose more than a $2,000 fine on his client. In response, Conrad pointed out that Greene had listed a $5,000 monthly stipend from his mother as part of financial documents filed before sentencing. Those recurring funds gave him a “greater ability to deal with any monetary costs imposed by the court,” the judge remarked.
End of the beginning
Edwards noted that both Wanda Greene and Wiseman could serve less prison time than announced due to their help in the federal government’s ongoing look into Buncombe County corruption. In each case, he referenced Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which allows a court to reduce sentences for “substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person.”
The prosecutor called Buncombe County a “target-rich environment” of current and former officials. Edwards noted that former Commissioner Ellen Frost had already been indicted for allegedly conspiring with Greene to direct county funds to the Tryon International Equestrian Center and other equestrian pursuits; another as-yet-unnamed former commissioner, he said, had used gift cards illegally obtained by Greene. He added that the former manager, despite exhibiting the “most obvious” corruption to date, would not be considered a “sore thumb” once the federal investigation was concluded.
Edwards said it was “standard practice” for contractors to pay for expensive meals, wine and gifts — including a set of golf clubs — as they entertained high-level county staff members and commissioners in expectation of government contracts. He also suggested that Buncombe officials failed to investigate obvious signs of corruption, such as Stone seeking county reimbursement for an airline seat upgrade on a Wiseman-funded pleasure trip to Florida but not providing details for the flight itself.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” remarked Conrad.
“You’re looking at it from the perspective of rationality and internal controls. This was Buncombe County,” Edwards replied.
At the end of the hearings, Conrad said he hoped his assignment of active prison sentences would serve as a deterrent to other would-be offenders and foster “a respect for the law” among government officials. Yet as he ruminated on how Buncombe County could go about restoring the public’s trust, the judge said he was “at a loss to answer that question.”
Updated 11:27 on 9/5/19 to accurately reflect attorney names.