NC sheriff, target of state and federal investigations, takes office. But for how long?

By Sarah Nagem

Jody Greene proudly held up a sheet of paper on Thursday morning, showing the document certifying his election as Columbus County sheriff to the deputies and supporters gathered nearby. 

“We finally got it,” Greene said, referring to the weeks-long delay caused by two election protests from citizens who argued Greene was ineligible to run in the November election. His declaration evoked cheers and applause from the crowd who stood bundled against the freezing temperature near the sheriff’s office in Whiteville. 

But Greene, who resigned in October amid allegations of corruption and then won re-election to serve a second term, continues to face an uncertain future. Minutes after the swearing-in ceremony, local District Attorney Jon David filed a petition asking the court to remove Greene from office. 

The News Reporter in Whiteville was the first to report about the petition, in which David accused Greene of racially profiling employees within the sheriff’s office, trying to intimidate county leaders and engaging in sexual encounters with a subordinate.

“(Greene) has used his office to hire and fire deputies based on race and to curry political favor,” David wrote in the petition. “He has abused his power to decide which laws are enforced and against whom they are enforced. He has chilled the first amendment right of free speech … and unfairly targeted and unjustly arrested citizens.” 

Meanwhile, Greene is the target of probes by the State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Details of the investigations have not been made public.

But a search warrant shows that an investigator for David’s office obtained several cell phones from the evidence room at the sheriff’s office on Dec. 5. The phones, records show, were seized by the sheriff’s office in September 2021 from a location in Chadbourn.

Greene declined the Border Belt Independent’s request for an interview Thursday. But in a brief speech, he thanked his deputies and promised citizens a “professional and well-trained sheriff’s office – that can face any challenge that arises.” 

He had a direct message for drug dealers: “To the people in our county that are selling the poison to our children, destroying our families and our communities, we’re coming for you.” 

Greene’s focus on controlling the opioid epidemic has become a rallying cry for many of his supporters.

But some of Greene’s tactics have drawn criticism for years. After George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died in 2020 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, Greene asked Columbus County commissioners for money to buy riot gear. 

The board ultimately voted against purchasing the equipment, but some residents say the request further cemented a racial divide in this rural county where about 30% of the 50,000 residents are Black. 

Then, in September, a 2019 phone recording became public in which Greene called deputies “Black bastards” and threatened to fire sheriff’s office employees who he suspected were aligned with Lewis Hatcher, the county’s first Black sheriff who lost re-election to Greene in 2018. 

At David’s request, Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser suspended Greene on Oct. 4. Greene resigned 20 days later at the start of a hearing to determine whether he would be removed from office. 

After Greene beat Democratic challenger Jason Soles on Nov. 8, two local activists filed separate protests arguing that Greene had been “adjudged guilty” by Sasser’s suspension. Therefore, they argued, Greene was not qualified to run for the sheriff’s seat.

But Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, sided with the Columbus County Board of Elections earlier this month and denied the election protests, paving the way for Greene to take office. 

It’s unclear when a judge might consider David’s latest petition. But Sasser suspended Greene in October the same day David had filed the request. 

Under North Carolina law, Superior Court judges in the county where the sheriff was elected have the sole authority to suspend or remove a sheriff.  

Jody Greene talks with supporters after he was sworn in for a second term as Columbus County sheriff on Thursday.
Photo by Sarah Nagem