By Ivey Schofield
A North Carolina sheriff-elect who made racist comments about Black deputies and is the focus of a state investigation was not sworn into office on Monday as scheduled.
Jody Greene was set to be sworn in Monday for a second four-year term as Columbus County’s first Republican sheriff. But the swearing-in was delayed because two residents planned to file appeals to the State Board of Elections, said Ashley Collins, director of the Columbus County Board of Elections.
Herman Lewis, a member of the local NAACP, and Calvin Norton, a local activist, filed separate protests last month asking the Columbus County Board of Elections to prevent Greene from taking office. Both argued that Greene was ineligible to run in the Nov. 8 election because he had been suspended from office a month earlier.
“The voters of Columbus County are on the verge of experiencing a manifest injustice, particularly Black voters,” Lewis said in his protest to the local board. “A man who should have been permanently removed from office was wrongly permitted to run again – a man who is known to bear extreme antipathy toward Black residents and has acted on that antipathy in a multitude of ways – and won in a county marked by significant racially polarized voting.”
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Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser suspended Greene on Oct. 4 at the request of local district attorney Jon David after news surfaced of a 2019 recorded phone call. During the call, Greene referred to deputies “Black bastards” and threatened to fire employees he suspected were aligned with the former sheriff, who is Black.
Also at David’s request, the State Bureau of Investigation began a probe of the sheriff’s office for potential obstruction of justice.
In an amended petition to the court, David also accused Greene of engaging in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a detective, attempting to intimidate county leaders and failing to provide adequate supervision at the jail.
Greene resigned on Oct. 24 at the start of a hearing to determine whether he would be removed from office and denied the allegations. Then he won 54% of the vote on Election Day to beat Democratic challenger Jason Soles.
The local board of elections voted along party lines on Nov. 28 to deny the protests from Lewis and Norton, saying neither presented justification for a new election.
The two Republicans on the local board – David McPherson and Tucker “Mac” Ward – voted in favor of a motion to deny the protests. Democrat Brenda Ebron voted against the motion, and two other Democrats, Kay Horne and Bonita Blakney, abstained. (Blakney is the sister-in-law of Franklin Thurman, chair of the local Democratic Party.)
Lewis, who said in his election protest that he was represented by an attorney for the Southern Coalition of Social Justice, argued that a change in North Carolina law more than 50 years ago makes Greene ineligible to serve as sheriff.
State law used to say that anyone “convicted” of corruption or malpractice is ineligible from serving in public office, the protest said. But in 1971, it said, the phrasing was changed to “adjudged guilty.”
“This change broadened the grounds for disqualification to include not just criminal convictions for corruption or malpractice, but to encompass any judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding in which a candidate or officeholder was ‘adjudged guilty’ of corruption or malpractice in any office,” according to the protest.
Lewis’ protest argued that Greene “would have been disqualified from holding office again” if he hadn’t resigned.
In his protest, Norton argued that Greene’s suspension did not have an end date. He also questioned whether Greene actually lived in Columbus County – an issue that lingered for months after Greene was first elected in 2018.
At the time, the local board ruled that Greene was not eligible to serve as the Columbus County sheriff because he did not live there. Ultimately, however, the State Board of Elections overturned this ruling, saying he was a resident of the county.
The State Board of Elections can send the appeals back to the county elections board, deny them or hold a hearing, Collins said.
Pat Gannon, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections, said Friday the board would post a public notice if a hearing is scheduled. There was no notice on the board’s website as of Tuesday afternoon.
“It doesn’t have a time frame,” Collins said. “But I’m pretty sure they’ll go ahead and try to work it out as soon as possible.”
Once the state elections board makes a decision, the petitioners have 10 days to appeal to the Wake County Superior Court.
It’s rare for the state board to order new elections. Under state law, four of the five board members would have to agree that a significant number of eligible voters were improperly prevented from voting or that certain irregularities affected the results of the election.
Separately, the state Board of Elections is investigating two complaints of potential intimidation of poll workers in Columbus County. In one instance, according to the board, an “observer” followed poll workers at a one-stop early-voting site to their car. In another, someone photographed or filmed workers.
Three precincts on Election Day had malfunctioning equipment and subsequently turned away voters. In response, the state board decided to keep one precinct open late.
The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office has been in turmoil since the recorded phone call was released by Soles to the media. Ten employees, including five detectives, have resigned. Acting Sheriff Bill Rogers suspended Chief Deputy Aaron Herring without pay from Nov. 22 to Dec. 5.
Sheriff’s deputy Jerome McMillian resigned Friday from his seat on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners to replace Herring as chief deputy, according to The News Reporter. McMillian’s term on the board was set to end Monday.