Could North Carolina sheriff who made racist comments be forced out of office?

By Sarah Nagem

Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene, who was heard making racist comments during a recorded phone call and whose office is the subject of an inquiry by the State Bureau of Investigation, has said he will not resign his post. 

But, under certain circumstances, Greene could potentially be forced out of office. 

North Carolina statute says a Superior Court judge can remove a sheriff for several reasons, including “willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform the duties of his office” or “willful misconduct or maladministration in office.”

Other offenses that can lead to removal are corruption, extortion, intoxication and a felony conviction, according to the statute.  

“You have to prove that one of those grounds existed,” said Jamie Markham, a professor at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It would be for the resident Superior Court judge to decide that.” 

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Greene, a Republican who is running for his second term as sheriff, resigned from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association last week after an audio recording was first reported by WECT. During the 2019 recorded phone call between Greene and Jason Soles, who is running against the sheriff in the Nov. 8 election, Greene is heard making racist comments about Black employees within the sheriff’s office. 

In a Facebook post on Sept. 28, Greene, who is white, said the recording was altered. 

Jon David, the local district attorney, reportedly sent a letter to Greene this week asking him to resign. The state NAACP called for Greene’s resignation last week.

Greene said on Facebook on Sept. 29 that he is not resigning. 

“I will continue to serve no matter the allegations or rumors,” he said in the post. “Thank you all for your concerns and support.”

At the time of the call, Greene had stepped aside from the sheriff’s role amid an investigation into whether he actually lived in Columbus County. Soles, who is white, was serving as the acting sheriff. 

David said last week he asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the possibility of obstruction of justice within the sheriff’s office. He did not say what role, if any, Greene might have played in the allegations. 

A charge of obstruction of justice could be a felony under North Carolina law. 

Sheriffs under fire

Removing a sheriff from office is very rare, said Markham, who teaches about public law and government.

“There really aren’t cases that have gone to the Court of Appeals or (state) Supreme Court,” he said. 

There are a few ways to begin court proceedings to remove a sheriff, according to the state statute. 

The district attorney could file a complaint or petition. 

Citizens could, too. Under the statute, “any five qualified electors” in the county can file to have a sheriff removed. 

That’s what happened in Wake County last month. A group of residents filed a petition in Superior Court to remove Sheriff Gerald Baker amid allegations of corruption and unethical conduct. 

Baker has faced controversy in recent months following the death of a deputy while on duty. He filed a court motion to dismiss the complaint against him, The News & Observer reported.  

Other sheriffs have also come under fire. 

Gerald Hege, who served as the Davidson County sheriff from 1994 to 2004, was forced to resign as part of a plea deal involving allegations of corruption. He pleaded guilty to two felony counts. 

In 2010, when Hege ran for office again, nearly 85% of North Carolina voters who cast ballots voted in favor of amending the state constitution to prevent convicted felons from running for sheriff.

Hege tried to run again in 2018, after his criminal record was expunged. Perhaps in response, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, later signed into law House Bill 312, which says a person convicted of a felony is disqualified from any sheriff’s race even if the criminal charge was expunged. 

Former Rutherford County Sheriff Damon Huskey faced court proceedings in the 1980s, according to Markham. The state Court of Appeals considered a technical matter in that case, he said. 

Racist comments led to the removal of a North Carolina district attorney in 1995. Jerry Spivey, the top prosecutor in New Hanover and Pender counties at the time, lost his job after he made racist remarks at a bar. 

Markham said allegations against sheriffs are taken seriously. 

“The sheriff is an elected official. It’s one of the offices spelled out in the North Carolina Constitution,” he said. “It’s no small matter for sure.” 

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