Home News Suspended NC sheriff is re-elected, what now?

Suspended NC sheriff is re-elected, what now?

Sheriff S. Jody Greene

Carli Brosseau

The Charlotte Observer

When sheriff candidates win election in North Carolina, usual next steps include selecting staff and law enforcement priorities.

But things are more complicated for Jody Greene, who faces major obstacles to reclaiming his old job in Columbus County.

Voters there reelected Greene to be sheriff, unofficial election results show, despite an ongoing obstruction of justice probe by the State Bureau of Investigation. And despite allegations from District Attorney Jon David that the county’s senior judge found serious enough to suspend Greene from office last month.

Greene never stopped campaigning. Through an attorney, he has denied allegations against him, which include racial bias, improper supervision, sexual harassment, malicious arrests and intimidation of other elected officials. In a Facebook post, he did apologize for “expletive language.”

The chairman of the county Republican Party says voters should determine Greene’s future.

About 18,500 of the more than 37,000 registered voters in Columbus County made a selection in the sheriff’s race, with 54% of those voters supporting Greene.

“The people spoke: We had a referendum, and the sheriff won,” Chairman Sammy Hinson said in an interview earlier this week.

But the district attorney has signaled that he will resume efforts to remove Greene from office if he tries to return.

Sour grapes?

The GOP chairman cast Greene as the target of a partisan “sour grapes” campaign that began in 2018, when Greene beat the county’s first African-American sheriff by 37 votes.

In the roughly seven months of legal wrangling that followed that election, Greene racked up some $140,000 in attorney bills, Hinson said.

“If somebody made me spend that much money after I had won the election, even though a narrow margin, I would have probably said some naughty words too,” Hinson said.

In a recorded phone call, Greene referred to Lewis Hatcher, his opponent in the 2018 election, and deputies he perceived as loyal to Hatcher as “Black bastards.” He also mentioned legal bills.

Hinson hopes people will accept the election results and brush aside the controversies that have dogged Greene for the past four years.

But signs point in the opposite direction.

Threats to grant funding

Officials at other government agencies appear more reluctant than voters to forgive Greene’s comments about Black deputies.

If Greene is sworn in after election results are finalized later this month, his office could struggle to raise outside funds, which often help small agencies like the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office cover salary and equipment costs.

State officials have rescinded at least two grants over concerns that Greene’s office can’t comply with civil rights laws.

The Governor’s Crime Commission, for example, wrote to the county manager in October to convey concerns that the sheriff’s office “cannot meet the expectations for compliance with State and Federal laws against non-discrimination, which are a precondition to any award.”

As a result, the sheriff’s office lost out on a $24,500 they hoped to put toward updated laptops.

The Governor’s Highway Safety Program also cited possible violations of federal civil rights laws for canceling a grant worth more than $125,000.

For perspective, the county manager recommended that the sheriff’s public safety budget this fiscal year be set at about $825,000, excluding spending for the jail, new vehicles and undercover drug purchases.

The financial pain could cut deeper.

Greene’s critics are urging state officials to consider recalling millions of dollars worth of military surplus equipment that had been a point of pride for Greene. The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office has received far more such equipment than any other agency in North Carolina, program data show.

In a Nov. 14 letter to the program’s coordinator, the executive director of Blueprint NC wrote, “we urgently request that you investigate Sheriff Greene’s conduct and whether the county’s Sheriff’s Department during his tenure complied with the requirements of your program.”

The sheriff’s office must return equipment deemed “controlled property” if the U.S. Department of Justice or a court finds it “has engaged in a pattern or practice of civil rights violation,” its contract states.

The program also bars law enforcement agencies from loaning equipment to other entities, such as schools, in most circumstances.

Greene allowed air conditioners he received through the surplus program to be used to cool a school that was temporarily used as a court facility, according to court documents the DA submitted when arguing for the former sheriff’s removal. Greene later threatened to move the air conditioners, which he called “mine” in a phone conversation, after county commissioners declined a funding request in 2020, the document states.

Spokespeople for the state Department of Public Safety and the Defense Logistics Agency have not responded to questions from The News & Observer about whether they were looking into the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office’s compliance.

Greene’s critics have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate him too. A so-called “pattern-or-practice” investigation, such as the one faced by Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, who was accused of racial profiling against Latinos a decade ago, could block additional funding.

That department declined to comment Wednesday on whether it has opened an investigation.

Can Greene be forced out?

There are very few ways under North Carolina law to remove an elected sheriff from office.

Generally, a Superior Court judge must rule on a petition from a district attorney, a county attorney or a group of voters with the stamp of approval from one of those officials. And there are only a few permissible rationales.

Corruption, of which Greene has been accused, is one.

David, the district attorney who is, like Greene, a Republican, has said he has an “ethical obligation” to pursue removing Greene from office.

He has already tried once.

The allegations he made in his petition, initiated Oct. 4, “speak through time and are disqualifying to anyone seeking to hold the high office of sheriff,” David said in an Oct. 24 statement. Greene resigned earlier that day, just as David was set to present the evidence against him in open court.

Greene’s supporters, including the county GOP chairman, have dismissed the district attorney’s promise as political gamesmanship and predicted that David will abandon the effort to unseat Greene.

“I think it’s going to go away,” Hinson said Tuesday. He also raised questions about whether a judge could remove Greene for actions taken in a previous term in office.

David has not indicated when he would file a new removal petition, and he declined an interview request The News & Observer made after the election. But David explained why he thought the court had authority to remove Greene in his Oct. 24 written statement.

He cited a court decision in a case involving a former Henderson County district attorney accused of misconduct, noting similarity in the laws that outline the process for removing sheriffs and district attorneys.

According to David, the judge in that case wrote, “If this proposed interpretation [of the removal statute] was adopted, a district attorney, who had engaged in misconduct, would have an incentive to conceal or cover up his or her misconduct until their current term expired so that the wrongful conduct could not be relied upon to justify their removal.”

“In construing statutes,” David said Judge Robert Ervin wrote, “courts normally adopt an interpretation which will avoid absurd and bizarre consequences, the presumption being that the legislature acted in accordance with reason and common sense and did not intend untoward results.”

As a result, David wrote, he believes “it is appropriate, and necessary, to file a petition based on the current allegations, as well as any new allegations that may come to light.”

At least one former North Carolina sheriff has been forced to resign as a condition of a plea agreement in a criminal case.

Gerald Hege, who billed himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” during his decade as Davidson County’s top law enforcement official, left office in 2004 under those terms.

As in Greene’s case, the local DA, a member of the same political party as the sheriff, requested an SBI investigation. Hege, too, complained about the weight of legal bills.

Facing 15 felony charges, he pleaded guilty to two counts of felony obstruction of justice and agreed to leave office.

Still, he ran for sheriff again, prompting the General Assembly to alter the law describing who can serve as sheriff — twice.

First, state lawmakers barred people convicted of felonies from holding that office.

After Hege had his convictions expunged and again set about campaigning, the General Assembly clarified that expunged felony convictions were disqualifying too.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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