Sheriff probed after comments surface condemning Black staff

September 29, 2022 GMT

WHITEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina sheriff was recorded calling Black employees by derogatory names and saying they should be fired, a television station reported. Several Black officers in leadership positions were later demoted or fired.

Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene issued a statement arguing that the recording of the February 2019 phone call obtained by WECT-TV had been edited or altered. But he didn’t deny in the statement that he was on the call or that he made the statements.

The recorded comments were condemned by the North Carolina NAACP, which demanded Greene’s resignation.

“His language is divisive, nasty, and offensive — his words are disparaging and hurtful to people of color. His actions have cast a cloud over his ability to execute the office with impartiality,” the NAACP said in a statement.

The local district attorney said Thursday that he asked the State Bureau of Investigation to probe allegations of obstruction of justice within the sheriff’s office but declined to elaborate.

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The recording was given to the station by a former sheriff’s captain who’s now running against Greene to be sheriff. Located about 120 miles (193 km) southeast of Raleigh, Columbus County has about 50,000 people and is approximately 63% white and 30% Black.

The call in 2019 to then-Capt. Jason Soles came shortly after Greene narrowly defeated former Sheriff Lewis Hatcher, who is Black. Soles was temporarily acting as sheriff at the time due to a court-mediated agreement that kept Greene from assuming the duties of the office while elections officials examined the contest, which was ultimately decided by fewer than 40 votes.

In the call, Greene, who is white, said he believed someone in the sheriff’s office was leaking information to Hatcher, the station reported.

“I’m sick of it. I’m sick of these black (expletives),” Greene is recorded saying. “I’m going to clean house and be done with it. And we’ll start from there.”

Greene was also recorded as saying: “Every Black that I know, you need to fire him to start with, he’s a snake.”

The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association also condemned the statements and said that Greene resigned from the group after being notified that it was scheduling a meeting to consider expelling him from the association.

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“The comments made on the recording are inflammatory, racially derogatory, insulting and offensive,” the group said in a release.

WECT reported that two Black officers were on the previous sheriff’s group of high-ranking officers known as command staff, but that a captain was fired and a lieutenant was demoted after Greene was sworn in. Another Black sergeant said he was fired shortly after Greene was elected. The station reported that several Black deputies appear to remain in the sheriff’s office in positions below the level of command staff.

Greene told WECT on Monday that he didn’t recall making the statements. On Wednesday, he released a statement saying Soles had a political motive to release the recording and arguing it had been edited or altered. In the statement, he did not deny making the comments.

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“If Soles has had these alleged recordings since 2019, why would he intentionally hold the recordings? … The only thing Soles has on his agenda is to be Sheriff at all costs necessary,” the sheriff said.

Greene and an attorney who advises the county didn’t immediately respond to an email Thursday seeking further comment.

Soles told WECT that he had previously shared the recording with the SBI and a county commissioner. The agency told him that it couldn’t investigate without a formal request from the local prosecutor, he said.

District Attorney Jon David told the station that he was informed of the recording Monday. In an email Thursday, David said he asked the SBI on Tuesday to investigate “Sheriff Jody Greene and deputies under his command for obstruction of justice,” but declined to elaborate.

The SBI issued a statement confirming the request and declined further comment on what it called an ongoing investigation.