By Ivey Schofield
Anger over an election board’s ruling to deny two protests related to a rural North Carolina sheriff who made racist comments marks the latest chapter for a law enforcement agency in strife.
The Columbus County Board of Elections ratified on Wednesday its decision two days earlier to deny protests from two residents who requested a hearing to determine whether Jody Greene was qualified to seek re-election on Nov. 8.
On Thursday, the residents filed documents declaring their intentions to appeal the board’s decision to the State Board of Elections. Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the state board, told the Border Belt Independent on Friday the agency would post a public notice if the board scheduled a hearing on the appeals.
Greene, who was suspended and then resigned in October as the county’s first Republican sheriff, won another term with 54% of the vote in last month’s election.
The sheriff’s office has been in turmoil since late September, when a phone recording from 2019 was released to the media. During the call, Greene called deputies “Black bastards” and threatened to fire those he believed were aligned with the previous sheriff who contested his 2018 win.
In an eight-week span this fall, 10 sheriff’s office employees have reportedly resigned, Chief Deputy Aaron Herring was suspended without pay, and the local NAACP has galvanized its supporters to heal a racially divided community.
“The people of Columbus County deserve so much better,” Courtney Patterson, the third vice president of the state NAACP, told reporters after the board’s meeting on Monday.
Last week, Herman Lewis, a member of the Columbus County chapter of the NAACP, and Calvin Norton, a local activist, filed separate protests arguing that Greene had been “adjudged guilty” when Superior Court Judge Douglass Sasser suspended him on Oct. 4 at the request of local district attorney Jon David.
David, a Republican who serves as the top prosecutor in Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, filed an amended petition to the court on Oct. 21 outlining several other allegations against Greene. They include having an affair with a detective in the sheriff’s office, firing a Black sergeant, trying to influence county commissioners and failing to ensure proper supervision at the jail.
Greene resigned at the beginning of the hearing to determine whether he would be removed from office and later said he wanted to focus on his re-election campaign.
In his election protest, Norton also alleged that Greene was not a resident of Columbus County. Questions about Greene’s residency first arose in 2018, when the county elections board ruled he was not a resident. The state Board of Elections in Raleigh overturned the ruling, allowing Greene to be sworn in.
On Monday, the five-member Columbus County Board of Elections ruled 2-1 that neither of the most recent protests impacted the election process – one of the requirements to order a new election.
Republicans David McPherson and Tucker “Mac” Ward supported the motion, Democrat Brenda Ebron opposed it, and Democrats Kay Horne and Bonita Blakney (who is the sister-in-law of Franklin Thurman, chair of the local Democratic Party) abstained.
Before abstaining, Horne asked if David had refiled his petition asking the court to remove Greene from office, which he said he would do if Greene was re-elected. David has yet to do so.
During the meeting Monday, Ebron expressed concern over voter intimidation, which she said would have been a more viable election protest.
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.
“It is our responsibility as the board of elections to have an honest and fair election and make sure every vote counted in the way that person wanted,” McPherson said. “Our election was fine.”
On Wednesday morning, the Columbus County Board of Elections held an emergency meeting where all members ratified its earlier decision. The vote had been under scrutiny since Horne’s vote of abstention was via video, which is no longer allowed post-pandemic.
Resignations, another suspension
Between Sept. 23 and Nov. 16, 10 employees – including five detectives, two deputies, two detention officers and Greene – resigned from the sheriff’s office, according to county documents reported by The News Reporter.
It’s unclear what led to the resignations. However, three former employees of the sheriff’s office said in affidavits that Greene created a hostile work environment.
Matthew Parker, a former investigator at the sheriff’s office, said he resigned shortly after – and “partially as a result of” – witnessing a “very unprofessional” interaction between Greene and a female detective, according to an affidavit filed with David’s amended petition.
In court records, David said Greene had an affair with the detective, who later had an abortion.
Former deputy Joshua Harris said in an affidavit that he resigned after Greene threatened to fire him for “talking junk.”
Earlier this week, interim Sheriff Bill Rogers, who used to work for Greene at the N.C. Highway Patrol, suspended Chief Deputy Aaron Herring without pay. He did not list a reason for the suspension in county documents.
Harris said in his affidavit that he witnessed Herring choke a Black child at Whiteville High School in 2021. At that time, Harris was working for the Whiteville Police Department and received a call for assistance from a sheriff’s deputy who was trying to restrain a student with developmental disabilities. Harris said he heard Herring threaten the boy while choking him for 15 to 30 seconds and immediately reported the incident afterward.
In a sworn affidavit in David’s petition, Thurman, who has served as chairman of the Columbus County Democratic Party for the past five years and is Black, said he felt intimidated by Herring at a campaign kickoff event for Jason Soles, a Democrat who lost to Greene in last month’s election. Thurman said Herring told him that about nine sheriff’s cars were parked in front of the building where the event was being held.
Soles, who released the 2019 phone call recording to WECT, and Parker said in affidavits that Herring was the reason the the State Bureau of Investigation no longer has a liaison in the office.
In 2015, the SBI charged Herring with simple assault and willful failure to discharge duties in the case of Juwarn Britt, who is Black and said he was beaten by Herring in the backseat of a patrol car. In 2018, Herring was found not guilty in the case.
Meanwhile, at David’s request this fall, the SBI is investigating Greene and the sheriff’s office for potential obstruction of justice.
‘We will continue to fight’
On Monday, dozens of members of the NAACP and the local Democratic Party flooded the county elections office to hear the board’s decision on the protests.
Following the elections meeting, local NAACP president Curtis Hill said the organization hoped the petitioners would appeal.
“He’s unfit to serve as Columbus County’s sheriff,” Hill said of Greene.
On Tuesday, the local NAACP held a meeting to discuss next steps. The meeting was advertised as a public event by the Columbus County Democratic Party, but a Border Belt Independent reporter who tried to attend was asked to leave by one of the greeters.
The Rev. Andy Anderson, a local activist who attended the meeting, later told the Border Belt Independent that the group discussed strategies to engage Columbus County residents across racial and economic divides.
The local chapter plans to meet every other week on Tuesday afternoons, he said.
The state and national NAACP pledged their support of the petitioners and all Columbus County residents in the upcoming months as legal battles will likely ensue.
“We will continue to fight every day in every way,” Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the state NAACP, said Monday.