Buncombe County and Joseph Wiseman Jr. didn’t exactly meet in the middle on a settlement of the county’s civil lawsuit against the former contractor and his company, Environmental Infrastructure Consulting. But the $150,000 he agreed to pay the county on Nov. 19 as restitution for his role in a kickback scheme involving former top Buncombe officials was still $150,000 more than his lawyers had argued was appropriate.
Attorney Ron Payne, whom the county hired to file civil suits against Wiseman and former county employees, argued in a Sept. 26 court document that the contractor could owe Buncombe more than $964,000 by causing “the loss of the honest and faithful services” of Wanda Greene, Mandy Stone and Jon Creighton, all of whom were convicted of various corruption charges on Aug. 28. In an Oct. 10 response, Wiseman’s attorneys called Payne’s argument “factually and legally meritless” and said he owed the county nothing.
During a Nov. 19 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Payne said the compromise figure would bring the suit to an end, “hopefully in somewhat of an expeditious manner.” Additionally, he said Wiseman would be required to testify in all further investigations of his work with the county and provide receipts from Environmental Infrastructure Consulting currently in his custody.
The six board members present unanimously agreed to the settlement; Vice Chair Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was absent from the meeting. After Wiseman transfers funds to the county, which Payne said will likely take place in January, Buncombe’s total recovery of taxpayer money from corrupt activity through legal settlements will exceed $3.4 million.
Wiseman was the last of the five people so far convicted in the ongoing investigation of Buncombe corruption to settle with the county. Greene agreed to pay $750,000, while her son, Michael Greene, paid $40,000. Creighton settled for $189,000, and Stone agreed to pay over $171,000. The county also recovered nearly $2.1 million from the Guardian Life Insurance Co., through which Wanda Greene purchased whole-life policies using misappropriated funds.
In other business
Commissioners were unanimous in their approval of all other items on the agenda, including the acceptance of two grants for opioid harm reduction. Those funds included nearly $162,000 from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for a pilot medication-assisted treatment program at the Buncombe County Detention Facility. That program will end after a year unless further grants are obtained or the board opts to support the work with county money.
The board also approved $17 million in capital projects for area schools. Commissioner Joe Belcher, who serves on the School Capital Fund Commission that evaluated the spending, said that the need for many projects was “incredible” and that much deliberation had taken place before the proposals were brought before the board.
Chair Brownie Newman, who also serves on that commission, drew particular attention to a roughly $740,000 award for retaining wall repairs at the Montford North Star Academy. He said the current structure represented an immediate safety risk; Commissioner Al Whitesides, a former member of the Asheville City Board of Education, added that the wall had been under discussion for at least five years.
Public comment at the meeting focused primarily (and self-referentially) on public comment. Newman warned speaker Ellie Richard, who addressed the board about the controversial Crossroads development and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s ex parte communication with the Board of Adjustment supporting the proposal, that she would be removed from the chamber if she kept talking beyond her allotted time.
Following that exchange, regular commenter Jerry Rice told the board they were “cutting the throat of the taxpayers” and expressed regret that members had not taken public comment on individual items during the meeting. And fellow commission regular Don Yelton ran out the clock on his comment time to make a point about the rights of public input — “The only reason I’m doing this just is to aggravate the heck out of you, because I’ve got 14 seconds left and you’re going to have to look at me.”