Since the Mountain Xpress broke the news in August that federal investigators had opened an investigation into former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene, there’s been a steady stream of revelations. The Asheville Citizen-Times has since taken the lead and published a series of stories revealing new information, with much of their reporting based on information culled from public records requests. County officials have also preemptively issued information.
Greene retired in June, two months before the investigation was confirmed. Her retirement came after 23 years as a county employee. She spent 20 of those years as county manager. Former county board Chairman David Gantt lauded Greene’s service upon her retirement, and other local officials piled on the praise.
I’m calling the investigation GreeneGate. Here’s a look at key points so far:
What’s Greene being investigated for? Federal investigators believe there is probably cause to believe that Greene committed federal program fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud, per the Citizen-Times, citing search warrant documents that were first sealed, unsealed, and then sealed again. Some of the “inappropriate financial transactions” include $42,000 of public money spent on gift cards from Sam’s Club, Office Depot and Target, according to the documents. County procurement cards were also used this year to pay for at least $900 worth of home decor items shipped to Greene’s home address, the newspaper reported.
Is anyone else under investigation? U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose’s office confirmed in August that Greene “and others” were under criminal investigation, but the names of other investigatory targets haven’t been released or confirmed.
County staff changes: The Citizen-Times notes Greene’s son, Michael Greene, a county employee, resigned his job as business intelligence manager the day after the GreeneGate federal investigation was confirmed. And Greene’s sister, Irene Wolfe, also a county employee, took a $30,000-a-year pay cut while voluntarily being reassigned in the county finance department just days after the investigation came to light, the newspaper reported.
Questionable spending with county employees: Under a county employee pay scheme Greene created, she paid herself a $241,791 retention incentive right before announcing her retirement, according to the Citizen-Times. (She made more than $500,000 in the last six months of her employment with the county. The retention bonus matched her annual salary of $241,791.) Greene also paid out another $1.4 million in incentive pay to a group of about a dozen top county staffers who were already well compensated. There was apparently nothing illegal with the payments, but definitely off.
Questionable spending with equestrian center: Greene apparently used the county’s economic development incentive fund, as well as two other funds under control, as her own personal slush fund to pay for projects that were never voted on by county commissioners. In one case, she spent $577,116 at the Tryon Equestrian Center, an equestrian event in Florida and an equestrian publication to advertise the Asheville Regional Airport, according to the Citizen-Times. Again, there’s nothing obviously illegal about this spending.
Questionable spending with fire department: Greene also apparently authorized two payments totaling nearly $1 million to advance the Skyland Volunteer Fire Department operating cash, per the Citizen-Times. A $425,000 payment in 2015 and a $500,000 payment in 2016 from the county’s economic development incentive fund was advanced to help the department get trough shaky financial times, according to the newspaper. The department issues a fire tax in its district, which the county collects. County commissioners never voted on the advances. And again, there’s no indication that the payments were illegal.
Operational changes: Since news of the investigation broke, Buncombe County commissioners have eliminated retention incentives that Greene paid out (some $1.4 million last year), clamped down on bonuses, strengthened the role of the internal auditor and boosted whistleblower policies, the Citizen-Times reports.
More from Buncombe County commissioners: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is a body of seven elected county officials that oversee a $419 million annual budget. Part of their job is to hire a county manager, who oversees the day-to-day operation of county government and its 1,200 or so employees. The board currently consists of Chairman Brownie Newman, a Democrat; fellow Democrats Ellen Frost, Al Whitesides and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara; and Republicans Joe Belcher, Robert Pressley and Mike Fryar.
In an op-ed published by the Citizen-Times, Beach-Ferrara, Whitesides and Pressley, who were all elected in 2016, note that “our county’s government has failed our community and damaged public trust” and that taxpayers deserve better. They pledged reforms, accountability and transparency. Newman has also called for reforms and accountability, while Frost and Fryar, the new vice chairman of the board, have teamed up and pressed for more answers.