AshevilleCity - County Gov.Leslee KulbaLocal News: Asheville and HendersonvilleOpinion

Contractor addicted local leaders to pleasure trips

While not a reporter by any stretch of the imagination, my common experience interacting with staff or county commissioners during the Wanda Greene administration was, in spite of all sorts of calls for diversity and inclusion, to be shamed for my mental retardation and behavioral problems. People coming to meetings as characters, in name and costume, to cast aspersions, were treated with more respect. As one with moral character more depraved than Donald Trump’s, it was customary for distinguished leaders to turn their backs as I approached.

Answers to any questions, as has been said many times, were like: We hire top talent to implement best practices. If you have a specific question, feel free to take time off work and visit us during regular business hours. Of course, there was no getting a specific question from the typical staff report that consisted of no more than a line-item number, a four- or five-word description, and a dollar amount. Activist Don Yelton frequently begged for more information publicly, but his requests earned him the same disrespect. Question the county, and you’re a crack-addled schizophrenic.

Do you want to celebrate Charles Darwin? Bash sheriff’s deputies? Legalize pot? Get folks subsidized needles and birth control? Awesome! Do you want to know what “To budget ABC funding for FY15, Supplies, Contracted Services, 1082829-280761-0000, Revenue $48,000, Expenditure $48,000” means? We’ll shuffle papers on the dais as you talk and send you a private email later saying we don’t know how you can stand to look yourself in the mirror. Wasteful expenditures of any type could always be explained as economic development to create jobs. And so it went, some couldn’t feel the positive energy of the vague budget reports written in Comic Sans.

The Latest Indictment –

Just hours before the commissioners’ last meeting, news dumped that Greene and her two assistant managers, Mandy Stone and Jon Creighton, had at first accepted gifts from a contractor, but as the years went on, they began to demand them. In return, the perpetrator was awarded contracts, through three companies, totaling $15 million. His name was not published in the indictment, but the text left enough clues for members of the general public to easily Google into his name and at least two of his companies. Interestingly, the agenda for the meeting when “Company B” was first paid by the county was uniquely not available via the county’s web site.

The situation presented a familiar dilemma for media outlets. Reporters are somewhat expected to come up with names and stories as federal prosecutors gather evidence. Gag orders are placed on those in-the-know so the feds can squeeze more information out of people without tipping off their partners in crime, who would destroy evidence, coordinate alibis, etc. to escape. This time, it has already been made public that the perpetrator’s name, Joseph Wiseman, and his first company, CDM Smith, were, as the informant had cautioned, involved in dirty deals with local government.

The transactional pattern that developed for the scheme was that the three managers would go on a junket somewhere nice. Places included several US cities as well as Vienna, Budapest, Cartagena, and Vancouver. They would claim they were going on county business, but often the meetings named had nothing to do with the times and places. The contractor would pay for, “airfare, hotels, meals, beverages, ground transportation, sightseeing, excursions, spa sessions, gift shop purchases, cases of wine, health and beauty items from the spas,” and other items like expensive tickets to sports events. Then, he would bill the county for a similar amount with vague, soft-cost line-item descriptions, like “contracting” or “design.”

The three would not use vacation time for the junkets. Instead, they were paid, often with overtime, for “work” that investigators deemed unrelated to county governance. That way, they were able to cash-in more unused vacation days at the end of each year. They would cover additional expenses, like airport parking or extra baggage fees with requests for reimbursement from the county.

Curious side stories included one about Creighton paying for his own hotels in order to earn Marriott points. The contractor would later reimburse him. Somebody employed by the county made an ID card with Creighton’s name and Wiseman’s photo and another card vice versa. Wiseman used his card to stay at a different Marriott in whatever city Creighton visited to get more Marriott points for him. It is unclear for what purpose the other card was used.

Projects Wiseman handled included a Buncombe County Landfill Gas Study and support for the LEED certification of AB Tech’s Allied Health building and the college’s new parking garage. One will recall the county took over capital projects at AB Tech, amid allegations of profligacy that forced the resignation of then President Hank Dunn. Dunn wrote at the time, while bickering with Greene, “I am not a happy camper.” Of interest in Wiseman’s contracts was a clause the county uniquely used with him. It said should he be disassociated from the company under contract, “the county may terminate the agreement immediately for cause and without penalty.”

Tuesday’s Meeting

At their regularly-scheduled meeting, the commissioners spoke indirectly, in sanitized language, about damage control for the latest indictments filed against county leadership – even though it was the proliferating jabberwocky the first time around that had convinced even the slowest observers that something was amiss. It wasn’t until later in the meeting that Chair Brownie Newman expressed disdain for wrongdoing.

When the subject of paying for ongoing construction projects came up, Commissioner Mike Fryar asked for a review of all projects. Commissioner Ellen Frost spoke as if she had not had time yet to read the indictment but was smart enough to figure things out. She and Fryar had had questions about the construction of the county’s shooting range and some of the projects at AB Tech. She wanted to know who the contractor was, when it had, indeed, been Wiseman. Assistant County Manager George Wood agreed with Fryar that the county should revisit each project in its capital improvement plan. He also thought the county should insert itself more in the process of selecting projects for building schools, since the county has to fund what the schools can’t.

Wood shared several manager’s reports. In one, he said the county needed to contract with a tax attorney. The unspoken word was that at least some county staff receiving handsome, illegal, whole life insurance policies from the county had not included the policies as income in their tax returns for three years.

In another report, Wood said the county was going to purchase software for tracking contracts. He spoke of empowering the county to know when deadlines were approaching. The county’s purchasing manual was also being updated to include procedures governing expenditures for everything from supplies to construction contracts. Changes would ensure compliance with state law and the following of best practices. The policies, furthermore, would be reviewed and adopted by the board of commissioners, and they would only be changeable by official action by the same body. Wood was, of course, closing more loopholes illuminated in the latest indictments.

Wood began the final report saying, “Needless to say, we’ve had a few openings? Here?” He then spoke of where the county was in the hiring process for a new finance director, county manager, budget director, communications director, and library director. More was said later in the meeting about the selection of an executive search firm for identifying candidates for a new county manager. A committee of commissioners had narrowed the field to two. The final decision will be made with a transparent process inviting public input.

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was pleased with the choices; the finalists were proactive on matters of diversity, including gender and orientation. It was thrilling to see the commissioners – after the last two county managers had been caught up in an ongoing federal investigation exposing fraud and mass embezzlement that had been going on unnoticed for years – had their priorities in order. One could just hear the interview process, “We don’t care if we hire a third huckster to defraud the taxpayers out of millions of dollars. Now, tell me, do you prefer men or women?” Making a political spectacle of intimate relationships would have been considered rude and impertinent a generation ago.

After Commissioner Joe Belcher expressed gratitude to Wood for all he’s done, Commissioner Robert Pressley said, “I hope this comes out right. We have praised a couple county mangers on their retirement when they left, and we don’t have a good track record.” And after he, too, praised Wood, he added, “Boy, I sure hope I’m not jinxin’ nothin’.”

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