Pete's Prep: Monday, August 20, 2018

GreeneGate "whistleblower" speaks to newspaper

The former Buncombe County Finance Director, Tim Flora, sat for an exclusive interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times' Jennifer Bowman. I admit I'm not completely sold on this story, although it does fill in some missing pieces.

For example, Flora's account explains how law enforcement got tipped off to the corruption infecting County Manager Wanda Greene's administration. [Emphasis added]

But in the final days of Greene’s employment, Flora  said then-controller Eric Hardy came by his office after noticing a  higher volume of purchases than usual on the county-issued credit card  for Rachel Norton, Greene’s assistant.

Flora walked  down the hall and got the receipts. They revealed that Greene was using  Norton’s credit card information, a violation of county policy, Flora  said. Federal investigators have made the same allegations in  indictments.

Within a three-day period, Flora said  he also would learn about timecard discrepancies and more questionable  credit card activity. Records show Mila White, a county employee who  once worked as Greene's assistant, was buying retail gift cards in bulk at Greene's instruction.  As much as $4,500 was spent in a single visit, and Greene claimed in a  memo that the gift cards were for commissioners' office supplies — an  explanation later denied by the board.

Flora worked over the weekend and came into the office with a written report on June 26, four days before Greene's last day.

"That’s  when I took it to Frue. 'So is it just me?'" he said. "And he  immediately came back and said there might be something there."

Flora  said he and county attorney Michael Frue then decided to start an  investigation and informed internal auditor Terri Orange of the initial  findings, while Frue moved to notify authorities.

During a public audit presentation to commissioners  earlier this year, Flora didn't specify his role but did hint at the  discovery of “irregularities” and said Greene lost access to county  property in her final days as manager. 

If true, this tends to exonerate Handy, Flora, and Frue from participation in the schemes that have so far been unearthed by law enforcement.

But, then there's this:

He had suspicions over the years, but nothing  concrete. Then his staff stumbled upon clear policy violations in  Greene's final days. Her assistants' credit cards had expenditures that  could not be explained. Records later showed that nearly $85,000 was charged in a three-and-a-half-year period.

If one has suspicions stretching over several years, why not raise these concerns with a county commissioner or a member of the media? A tip from the Finance Director would carry a LOT of credibility with a reporter.

Maybe he did. But it doesn't appear so.

Also, as Finance Director, he'd be positioned to obtain the concrete evidence that would confirm - or allay - his concerns. Why didn't he seek this evidence out? Maybe he did and couldn't find any? That seems odd, given the evidence we've seen in the indictments.

Flora says he got along with Assistant Manager Mandy Stone - who was unanimously selected by commissioners as County Manager after Greene's unexpected retirement. But Flora says they butted heads over disclosing compensation information to the public, as well as his contract. 

He offered these examples before Stone was indicted, so it lends credibility to his account.

He criticizes the Board of Commissioners (which reduced his salary and removed some job security) as not providing any oversight of Greene, while acknowledging he and the Board pressured each other over how he'd leave:

In their statement, commissioners said Flora  "personally facilitated" wire transfers to pay for the insurance  policies. As finance director, he signed those certifying they were  pre-audited as required by state law. The transfers were not in  compliance, however, because they had never approved the payments, they  said.

"Tim Flora did not notify the commissioners  of the purchase of any life insurance policies (including the one he  received) nor any payments for the policies," the statement said.

Flora said he had a feeling. Such a strong feeling, in fact, that he cleaned out his office before meeting with Newman.

Flora  knew the investigation was closing in on life insurance. The questions from county officials about its supporting documentation persisted.

"I got a sense that, 'Yeah, OK,'" Flora said. "'They’re looking for a fall guy.'"

Nearly  a week after meeting minutes would show commissioners discussed his job  performance in closed session, Flora found himself in a meeting with  Newman. Commissioners intended to fire him for cause, Flora was told,  and the county planned to go after his roughly $200,000 performance  bond.

They made sure to inform Flora that such action would be public record, he said.

"That  sort of me threw me for a loop," Flora said, recounting the  meeting. "That’s the kiss of death for me. You’d all but destroy my  career."

But Flora had prepared his own press release. It would have told the public that commissioners were forcing Flora to resign.

He handed it to Newman and suggested discussions about a resignation — something that would keep his dignity intact, he said. 

Twenty-four  hours later, Flora submitted his resignation letter and began the clock  on a two-week notice. He said he and commissioners verbally agreed not  to impugn each other.

To me, this is the most shocking part of the story.

Either commissioners believe Flora was part of the corruption or derelict in his duties. But they caved to a threat so weak it barely qualifies as a threat. Why would commissioners care if Flora issued a competing press release - alleging he was forced out? Who cares? 

If he was going to be fired for cause, OF COURSE he would be forced out.

This would read like an episode of The Office...

Newman: "We're going to fire you for cause."

Flora: "No, you won't. I have a statement that says you forced me out."

Newman: "Oh no! Golly! I didn't see THAT coming."

Flora: "Exactly."

Newman: "We totally can't have you telling the public that we forced you out after we force you out."

Flora: "Yup."

If Flora's account is accurate, it demonstrates that the Board's threat was hollow in the first place and they could NOT fire him for cause. In other words - they were bluffing. If so, why?

We should also keep in mind that this meeting where Flora was threatened was NOT a meeting with county commissioners. It was a meeting with the Board Chairman only - Brownie Newman.

Last week, Newman was criticized for committing county dollars without discussion or a vote of the full board. Did Newman follow a similar course here? Did Newman simply call his fellow Democrats, get their support in private, and then threaten Flora with termination? If so, why?

And finally, Flora says the commissioners were looking for a "fall guy." But there's no fuller explanation of why he believes this or why one would be needed. After all, it seems like there was already a fall guy. Well, a fall gal. Namely, Wanda Greene.

See what I mean?

I'm not completely sold on this entire story, although it does fill in some missing pieces.

Media mea culpa

Citizen-Times columnist and Editorial Board member John Boyle offered a lengthy defense with a bit of an apology for not "uncovering" the Wanda Greene scandal.

From my perspective, we certainly should've uncovered  more of Greene's alleged misdeeds and questionable behavior, especially  the retirement incentives for high-level county employees and retention  bonuses to keep some employees on the job. We should've analyzed that  closely.

The same goes for the extravagant life insurance purchases the feds say she was making for top-level employees.

To be fair, I don't expect reporters to uncover government corruption at the scale Buncombe County leaders were running - especially when those high-ranking officials take such great pains to cover up their schemes. Reporters without inside knowledge of the accounting don't stand much of a chance to uncover this kind of abuse without being tipped off to it.

And I think that's the bigger issue - which wasn't really addressed in this piece.

Nobody in county government gave a single tip (even anonymously) to local media. Why?

Was every employee ignorant of all corruption? No. This is not believable given what we know at this point. What we saw was staffers unwilling to blow the whistle on suspicious activities.

Perhaps every employee who suspected (or knew of) malfeasance believed they could not go to the local press for fear of retaliation. (I'd note: It appears nobody in county government gave information to commissioners, either. Likely for the same reasons.)

The structure of the county governance allows the lax oversight by commissioners. I suspect many commissioners enjoy this structure, as it doesn't put more demands on their time.

But if you've got a decade of extensive corruption occurring inside county government, the media should be asking why not one single person inside county government trusted them enough to tell them. (Again, the same goes for commissioners.)

Boyle also noted:

But  Greene, who comes from an accounting background, apparently was not one  for providing line item budgets or making sure commissioners knew  exactly how all this worked. She liked to sneak items into consent  agendas, the part of public meetings that are handled with one sweeping  approval vote.

Personally, I don't believe stuff got "sneaked into the consent agenda" - or any other part of the agenda. It was either on the agenda or it was not.

Media and commissioners have the agenda days before the meeting. They are expected to read it - along with the supporting materials. Short of doctoring documents (which Greene allegedly was completely comfortable doing), items don't get "sneaked into consent agendas" unless media and commissioners don't bother reading the agendas.

Government-run monopoly costs consumers more

Here are receipts I received from two different liquor stores for the exact same bottle of Jameson's Irish whiskey.

One if from a North Carolina ABC store in Charlotte.

The other is from a South Carolina store just across the border with NC...


When you add in the taxes (NC was about $4 and SC was about $3), the same bottle of booze is over $15 more expensive to purchase on one side of the state line than it is on the other side of that line.

North Carolina operates a monopoly on the distribution and sale of liquor, which leads to higher prices for consumers.

This is Capitalism 101.

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Pete Kaliner

Pete Kaliner

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