By Sarah Nagem
A Superior Court judge on Tuesday suspended Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene, who was heard on a recently released audio recording making racist comments and disparaging his office’s Black employees.
Jon David, the district attorney in Columbus, Bladen and Brunswick counties, filed a petition in Columbus County Superior Court on Tuesday, alleging that Greene committed “corruption while in office,” according to The News Reporter in Whiteville. Within hours, Judge Douglas B. Sasser agreed to suspend Greene.
The suspension is the latest chapter in a dramatic story playing out in this southeastern North Carolina county, home to about 50,000 residents. Greene came under fire last week when a recorded phone call from 2019 was first reported by WECT. During the call, Greene can be heard using racist language and saying Black employees should be fired from the sheriff’s office.
Keep up with all the news from the Border Belt Independent. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.
The call was recorded by Jason Soles, who was the acting sheriff at the time and is now the Democratic candidate opposing Greene in the Nov. 8 election. Soles said he released the recording to the TV station.
David, along with the local and state NAACP, called for Greene’s resignation.
Greene has said he will not resign.
A hearing is set for Oct. 24 to decide whether Greene will be removed from office, WECT reported.
Superior Court judges are the only people with authority to remove sheriffs from office, under North Carolina law. A district attorney, county attorney or group of at least five citizens can petition the court, but the decision is ultimately up to a judge.
David’s petition came a day after the Columbus County commissioners abruptly ended their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday evening.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd, Ricky Bullard, chairman of the commissioners, started and ended the meeting with a brief statement. He told those in attendance that commissioners could not speak about the investigation into Greene’s office and recessed the meeting until Oct. 17.
The decision stirred frustrations among some people who had hoped to speak during the public comment portion of the commissioners’ meeting.
Curtis Hill, chairman of the Columbus County branch of the NAACP, said he wondered why citizens couldn’t have their say, especially since commissioners don’t respond to public comments during meetings. He said he had planned to call for a “thorough investigation” of Greene.
“You just say what you have to say and sit down,” he said. “So what was improper today that you didn’t have an opportunity to speak about it?”
News of the recorded call has divided the county, with some people criticizing Greene and others pledging their continued support for him.
“I cannot imagine the people in Columbus County voting for any one else, because there is no way anyone else could get the job done as well or better than our current sheriff,” one supporter wrote on a public Facebook page dedicated to Greene’s re-election campaign. “You hit the ground running when you were elected and I don’t think you have slowed down yet.”
For some, including Hill, the recording served as a reminder of racism in the county, where about 30% of residents are Black.
“I think he has heightened racial tensions,” Hill said of Greene. “He has really amped up the problems in the county.”
History of controversy
Race was an issue in the 2018 election, when Greene, who is white, beat incumbent sheriff Lewis Hatcher, who is Black, by fewer than 40 votes. Greene became the county’s first Republican sheriff.
The recorded phone call occurred in February 2019, during an investigation into whether he actually lived in Columbus County and was eligible to serve as sheriff.
After Greene got the go-ahead to assume his duties, he soon came under fire for accepting nearly $4 million in surplus military equipment from the federal government. Many law enforcement agencies across the state take part in the program, but the amount received by the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office – including two helicopters and an armored vehicle – raised eyebrows, particularly among some Black residents who said they worried the agency was becoming too militarized.
Last year, Greene refused to remove a Bible verse from the hallway of the sheriff’s office amid outcry from the national Freedom from Religion Foundation. The verse, Philippians 4:13, reads, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Board complied with law
While the brief commissioners’ meeting on Monday seemed strange to many who attended, the board was in compliance with the state’s open meetings law.
A governing board can choose to recess a meeting until a later date, said Kristina Wilson, an assistant professor at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But Amanda Martin, a North Carolina attorney who specializes in media saw, described the commissioners’ actions as “unusual and unexpected.”
“I’m not quite sure why they couldn’t proceed with other business,” she said. “But the open meetings law does allow for meetings to be recessed.”
Bullard, the board’s chairman, did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter.