Former County Manager Wanda Greene’s return to Buncombe after 27 months in federal prison is reopening one of the uglier chapters in county history.
In the eyes of the justice system, Greene has paid her debt to society for admitted crimes including fraud, bribery, and embezzlement. But in the eyes of Buncombe County, she still owes the taxpayers $419,372.
Greene, now 71, repaid the county $750,000 as part of a 2019 legal settlement. The county maintains the additional $419,372 is owed for equestrian expenditures Greene “wrongfully” authorized while county manager. Green says she doesn’t owe the county anything more.
The courts have already sided with the county, but now Greene is appealing.
As Asheville Watchdog first reported, Greene’s seven-year prison sentence was cut short — she served 27 months of her 84-month sentence — due to a sentence reduction, good behavior, her health problems, and COVID-19. She has been back in Buncombe since Jan. 12, 2022, but is still under federal supervision and must report weekly to a federal contract center in Gastonia.
Greene agreed to exclusive interviews with Asheville Watchdog in part to make her case for why she says the county is wrong to come after her and her family for additional money.
Greene said she knows many people view her with disdain, and she owns up to the fraud that turned her into a convicted felon, along with three former county employees — including her son, Michael — and a county contractor. On the day of their sentencing, then-U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray described them as “a reprehensible group of individuals” with Wanda Greene as their ringleader.
Fraud, Bribery, Embezzlement
Greene was Buncombe County Manager for 20 years until her retirement in 2017. And for many of those years, Greene admitted in court, she used county purchasing cards for personal benefit at retailers such as Target and Amazon; bought county-funded life insurance policies for herself and other employees — Greene later cashed hers in for nearly $400,000 — and took bribes in the form of trips, meals, and entertainment from a contractor with the understanding his companies would receive county contracts.
All told, at the time of the settlement in January 2019 the county had recovered nearly $2.9 million lost in the various fraudulent schemes, the county’s attorney, Ronald K. Payne said.
But the county later came back with additional lawsuits seeking to recover additional hundreds of thousands of dollars for frauds that, the county says, were not covered by the original settlement agreement. (As of December 2022 the amount recovered has grown to more than $3.5 million.)
At issue is Greene’s authorization to spend tens of thousands of dollars for high-end equestrian sponsorships and advertising in North Carolina and Florida, spending the county says was an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars.
Greene: Spending Was Authorized
But Greene, now living in southern Buncombe County, contends the spending was authorized and well documented by the time the settlement agreement was made in January 2019.
She is also highly critical of a lawsuit the county filed in July 2022 contending that Greene and her son, Michael Greene, and his wife, Celena Greene, concealed money transfers totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to hide assets.
Greene said she has been open about the payments and transfers — which continued while she was in prison — and made them to help keep her family from losing their home.
“I feel the county has wasted a lot of legal dollars,” Greene told Asheville Watchdog Dec. 12. “The county has certainly incurred a lot of unnecessary legal expense by violating the settlement agreement.”
County: No, It Wasn’t
But the county and Payne, its hired lawyer, maintain that while the 2019 agreement released Greene from several specific misdeeds, it did not include the $419,372 they contend was wrongfully spent on equestrian sponsorships, advertising and trips, details of which were not entirely known at the time of the settlement.
Payne scoffed at the notion that the settlement agreement has been violated in any way, and he stressed it was intentionally left open-ended to encompass further findings of inappropriately spent monies.
Payne said that the agreement reserved the right to pursue funds for any other malfeasance that subsequently came to light.
“So, the equestrian deal was being talked about, but we specifically excluded it (from the agreement),” Payne said. “She had a lawyer. That was never raised.”
Payne, a former Buncombe County Superior Court judge, said at the time it was important to leave that door open.
“I said, ‘I will not give her a general release,’” Payne said, referring to what he told Greene’s lawyer. “I said, ‘We don’t know what else may be going on.’”
Greene adamantly disagrees.
“The settlement agreement says it settles everything that was known at that date…” Greene said. She said the equestrian spending issues were well known by then.
Greene reported to federal prison in Texas on Oct. 2, 2019, assuming, she said, that she owed no money to anyone.
The following month, November 2019, Buncombe County sued Greene and Ellen Frost, a former member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, to recapture more than $593,000 in what the county and its lawyer say were county funds “wrongfully” spent.
The spending was for advertising with the Tryon Equestrian Center in Polk County and an industry magazine, sponsorship of a high-end horse event in Florida, and trips the two women took to Florida and New York state for horse-related activities. Some of the spending was to promote Asheville Regional Airport.
The Asheville Regional Airport is neither governed nor funded by Buncombe County.
The case, and a separate lawsuit filed in July 2022, continue winding their way through the court system. While a judge in 2020 ordered a default payment — meaning Greene had to pay the money — Greene has fought the order. She told Asheville Watchdog that she most recently filed an appeal in the North Carolina appellate court.
Sold Her House to Raise Cash
As part of the civil case against her, Greene agreed to repay the county, selling her house and tapping retirement accounts to come up with the cash, she said.
In all, to settle with the county, the Internal Revenue Service, and to pay legal fees, Greene said this month, “I’ve paid out $1.4 million, $1.5 million.”
At the time of her retirement in 2017, Greene had an annual base salary of $247,000, records show.
In the Jan. 2, 2019 meeting, available on the YouTube online platform, Payne told the board the $750,000 “limited release” would cover inappropriate spending Greene was involved in on several specific schemes.
“When I say ‘limited,’ she will only be being released from liability that arises from matters which we are currently aware of,” Payne said.
He then listed these schemes:
- The use or misuse of county purchase cards or credit cards, either by Greene or by individuals at her direction.
- $241,790 in retention incentive pay for senior level county employees, which was “not approved through the proper channels.”
- $221,259 for whole life insurance policies purchased for higher-level county employees, as well as one annuity. Payne noted the policies and annuity cost the county $2.31 million, but the county had received a settlement from the insurance company for just over $2 million.
- $110,950 for trips that Greene and two other county officials took with county engineering consultant Joe Wiseman or his company, Environmental Consulting. The trips, along with meals, wine and entertainment, were purchased through Wiseman’s companies but billed back to the county through a billing scheme.
In the Jan. 2, 2019, meeting, Payne said the $750,000 payment would bring the total amount of taxpayer money recovered to nearly $2.9 million.
“The release, as I said, would be limited, which means if we discover other misdeeds by Ms. Green, it would be open to us to pursue that legally, should the board be inclined to do so,” Payne told commissioners.
Brownie Newman, the chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, then read a recap of Payne’s points.
“It’s a limited release, just for these issues,” Newman said in the meeting. “If there are other matters, the county would not be prevented from pursuing them.”
The board approved the agreement by a vote of 7-0.
The written settlement states that in return for Greene’s payment, the county would “fully and unconditionally release and forever discharge” Greene from “any and all claims, losses, liabilities, demands, actions or causes of action of any kind or character” related to the schemes listed at the Jan. 2 meeting: misuse of purchase cards, inappropriate retention pay and life insurance policies, and the trips and entertainment taken with Wiseman.
Greene said the written settlement document is “immensely inaccurate.”
“It does not reflect what the county Board of Commissioners approved,” Greene said.
But Payne’s Jan. 2, 2019, presentation and the Jan. 22 written agreement closely track one another. The main difference is the written settlement specifically names the 10 county employees who received life insurance policies and the one who got an annuity.
The last sentence of the written agreement states: “Except as hereinabove specifically mentioned any other claims that Buncombe County may have against Wanda S. Greene are hereby reserved.”
Payne said that sentence was very intentional and aimed at covering any more malfeasance that came to light, including more information about equestrian spending.
Reached Dec. 14, Newman said via text message, “The county did not enter into a general settlement with Wanda Greene.”
“It was limited to very specific claims, such as misuse of travel, purchase cards and life insurance funds,” Newman said. “The county expressly reserved the right to pursue additional claims.”
Asheville Watchdog was unable to reach Greene’s attorney, Walter Daniels, by deadline. Payne confirmed an appeal has been filed.
In a motion to set aside the default judgment, Greene and her attorney argued, “The payments to Tryon Equestrian Center were well known before Greene reached a settlement with Buncombe County on Jan. 2, 2019.” They cited “numerous public news articles” about the payments to Tryon Equestrian Center, including in the Asheville Citizen Times, Mountain Xpress and the Daily Planet, that were published in 2017 and 2018.
Invoice Allegedly Altered
Payne said that while some information had been made public, not all of the spending was known, and Greene actively concealed how much was spent.
In the county’s July 2022 lawsuit, Payne and attorney Philip Anderson state that Greene, between July 2014 and June 2017, defrauded the county and breached her fiduciary duties by “wrongfully expending substantial county funds in connection with equestrian sponsorship contracts with multiple business entities.”
From 2014 through July 2019, Greene failed to disclose to the county and concealed “the fact and extent of the wrongful expenditures she had made” on the equestrian scheme, the lawsuit states. In 2016, Greene provided the Asheville Citizen Times three invoices for equestrian spending for $530, $896.70, and $25,000.
“The third invoice was actually an invoice for $125,000, but Greene had altered the invoice so that it instead read, ‘$25,000,” the lawsuit notes. Later, in response to questions from several county commissioners, “Greene falsely represented that the county had only made equestrian-related payments to a single equestrian business entity and that those payments cumulatively totaled $26,426.70.”
The 2019 lawsuit explains the county’s position on obfuscation by Greene and Frost regarding equestrian spending.
“As a result of Frost and Greene’s fraudulent and wrongful representations and concealment, Buncombe County … could not, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, have discovered the defendants’ wrongful conduct pursuant to their conspiracy and scheme at any time before July 2017.”
Frost pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit federal program fraud, and agreed to repay the county $175,000. She received a six-month sentence and was released from federal custody Dec. 8, 2021.
The 2019 lawsuit further states the pair “conspired and caused these expenditures of public funds to be made with intent to evade the law and for corrupt purposes.”
Authorized to make payments?
The lawsuit goes on to state in reference to the $750,000 settlement that, “The county did not release any claims against Wanda Greene in connection with the equestrian scheme.”
The 2019 lawsuit also states on behalf of the county, “Neither Greene nor Frost had the power or authority to enter a binding agreement on behalf of Buncombe County” for advertising in “The Chronicle of the Horse” or to use economic development funds to make payments to equestrian entities.
Greene disputes this, saying that as county manager she had the authority to authorize spending on large advertising or sponsorship contracts. Greene said the county’s budget ordinance allows the county manager to make such agreements.
“As long as there are appropriated funds, several staff could sign contracts,” Greene said, adding that the finance director had to sign off as to fund availability and policy compliance. “Also, the external auditor reviewed all invoices of $100,000 or more for proper authorization and budget compliance.”
Greene provided a document dated July 8, 2014, that details the county’s budget ordinance. It states that subject to a pre-audit certificate by the finance director and approval from legal services if applicable, the county manager and clerk to the board are authorized “to sign all contracts where money has been appropriated in this fiscal budget, to execute contracts as well as the necessary documents and agreements and any amendments thereto which are not required to be bid, and those contracts needed to properly document budgeted appropriations, on behalf of Buncombe County within funds included in the Budget Ordinance.”
A Buncombe County spokesperson confirmed this document is accurate.
The document goes on to state the county manager is “authorized to transfer appropriations between functional areas within a fund up to $75,000 per expenditure; however, any revisions that alter total expenditures of any fund must be approved by the Governing Board.”
The 2019 lawsuit naming Greene and Frost states a contract for a horse event in Wellington, Florida, required the county to pay $50,000 for a 2015 Winter Equestrian Festival sponsorship and $100,000 for the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival sponsorship. A county sponsorship for the Tryon Equestrian Center in Polk County required contracts for $125,000 for the Tryon Series, and $150,000 for the 2016 event.
The county also paid $150,000 for advertising in “The Chronicle of the Horse,” a weekly magazine based in Virginia.
The sponsorships were in the name of Asheville Regional Airport, but the lawsuit makes clear that the airport “never agreed, and never intended, to contract with, or to pay, any of the Equestrian Entities for sponsorships or advertising.” The airport just agreed to have the sponsorship made in its name, with Buncombe paying and exercising control over contracts.
While the bulk of county spending went to sponsorships, the lawsuit does note that Greene was reimbursed $4,151 for costs related to a high-end dinner at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville for Tryon Equestrian Center officials, local businessmen and others. Greene and Frost also took a trip to West Palm Beach to attend the 2015 Winter Equestrian Festival, and the county reimbursed the $2,497 cost.
In July 2015, Greene and Frost also took a trip to Albany and Saratoga Springs, New York, on a horse-related excursion. The county reimbursed them $6,344 for the trip.
Horses an “Economic Engine” for WNC
Greene also maintains the equestrian advertising and sponsorship were good for the county and Asheville Regional Airport. The International Equestrian Federation held its World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in 2018.
“I want to tell you this: One of the reasons that we did it was it was going to be an economic engine for all of Western North Carolina,” Greene said. “But when you look at it, Asheville is the place to shop, Asheville is the place to see, Asheville is the place to stay — all these other things. And we really advertised for the airport.”
Two current commissioners, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Al Whitesides, said they don’t buy that.
“I do not believe the spending was beneficial and I do not think it was appropriately authorized, although I was not on the commission at that time,” Beach-Ferrara said. “My perspective on economic development spending is we want to be very rigorous around ensuring it is creating jobs and helping local folks. And I don’t see how a project like this would ever pass that litmus test.”
Whitesides noted he came on the board in 2016, and the equestrian money was spent before that. But he doesn’t think the equestrian spending was beneficial, either, even when the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s FEI World Equestrian Games were held at Tryon International Equestrian Center in 2018.
“What benefit did we get?” Whitesides said. “Hotels didn’t get any business. The horses were flown into Atlanta because they had to be quarantined. The whole event was a bust, from what I understand.”
Whitesides also said the settlement agreement with Greene was intentionally left open because, “At that time we were still fishing” for more information regarding equestrian spending.
Greene: Lawsuit is a “Cash Cow”
Convinced she’s right on all counts, Greene says flatly that Payne misled commissioners when the most recent lawsuit was filed in July, not telling them that it violated the settlement agreement.
Payne is equally blunt in his reply, saying he never told commissioners the lawsuits in 2019 or 2022 would violate the settlement agreement.
“No I didn’t, because it didn’t (violate the agreement),” he said.
Greene considers the latest action a money grab by the county and a “cash cow” for Payne, who has billed $350 an hour and more. Payne, sitting in a conference room of the firm he works for now, Van Winkle Law, said that’s a ridiculous assertion.
“I would say this to you, I don’t make my money working by the hour,” Payne said, noting he makes money mostly on contingency cases involving eminent domain land cases. “It’s a risk reward.”
But Greene pushed the point, saying she’s spent 100 hours putting documents together for the most recent suit, “and I knew what I was looking at.”
“When they start studying them and deciding what else they want, you can count on it being 200, 250 hours,” Greene said. “And at $350 an hour, hell, if I paid them back, they’re not going to gain anything.”
Buncombe County spokesperson Lillian Govus said in a Dec. 6 email that the county has paid Ron Payne $215,719 for his services in recouping inappropriately spent funds while he was with Long, Parker & Payne law firm, and another $13,300 since Payne joined Van Winkle in July 2022.
The life insurance company involved in the scandal paid some of the legal fees, however, so the county’s net payout to Payne is $176,162, Govus said.
To date, the county has recovered $3,563,981 in the malfeasance cases involving Greene ($750,000), former Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton ($189,000), former Assistant County Manager and then County Manager Mandy Stone ($171,241), former Commissioner Ellen Frost ($175,000), former county contractor Joe Wiseman ($150,000) and former county employee and Greene’s son, Michael Greene ($40,000).
The contract with Payne “runs until all misappropriated funds are recovered and the mission is accomplished,” Govus said.
The money transfers
In the July 2022 lawsuit, Buncombe County and Payne assert that Green has made multiple fraudulent payments to her son and daughter in-law, including:
- $63,900 in checks between August 2017 and June 2018.
- $101,700 in transfers by checks and debits.
- $10,500 between April 2019 and October 2019, made in seven $1,500 payments against a mortgage loan.
- A $131,373 deposit from a tax refund check.
- $36,100 transferred between November 2020 and March 30, 2021.
- $10,579 transfer from her attorney.
The lawsuit states Greene made the transfers “with intent to hinder, delay, and defraud the county and her other creditors.” Further, the lawsuit says Greene has been financially “insolvent” since Aug. 14, 2017, and that since then, the sum of her liability on creditors’ claims — what she owes — “has been greater than the sum of the fair value of her assets.”
“The defendants,” the lawsuit states, “concealed all the transfers.”
“Wanda Greene made the $130,000 transfer and many of the other transfers after the county had sued her, and Wanda Greene made all of the transfers at a time at which suit was either pending or a threat,” the July 2022 filing reads.
Michael Greene, her son, was on the payroll of Buncombe County for 14 years. At the time of his indictment, his annual base salary was $120,350.
“I Have Grandchildren”
Greene does not dispute that she was supporting her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. She said that while she was in prison, she was basically transferring to them $6,000 a month, “which was my retirement from the state of North Carolina since the fall of 2017,” and for a few months after she got home.
Greene said it’s “absolutely not true” that she concealed any transfers. In fact, Greene says, she told a federal judge they were doing it, as well as a federal probation officer.
“They were absolutely above board,” Greene said. “You know my son also went to prison for six months, and I didn’t want them to lose their home. I didn’t want them to have no money. I mean, I have grandchildren.”
Greene has two grandchildren.
Greene said this all goes back to the county allegedly violating its settlement agreement.
“The judge exempted my assets — my IRAs, my retirement — so they can’t collect from me,” Greene said, referring to Individual Retirement Accounts. “So now they are trying to call it fraud that I transferred money to my children for those five years and put a lien on my children’s house.”
“A Lot of Remorse”
Greene is adamant that when she went to prison, her conscience was clear that she didn’t owe anyone any more money, that she had met her obligations.
“Once I settled with the county, I didn’t think I owed,” Greene said. “And I paid all my debts to everybody, without question. I don’t owe anybody anything, until they filed this lawsuit.”
Asked by Asheville Watchdog if she felt remorse for the acts that sent her to prison, Greene said: “I do have a lot of remorse for what happened, and for the people who were hurt.”
“If I could do things different,” she said, “I would certainly do things different.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com.