Asheville Watchdog: The Puzzle of Wanda Greene

Written by John Boyle, Asheville Watchdog.

Wanda Greene seemed to have it all. She’d overcome humble beginnings, built an impressive career and risen to the apex of power in Buncombe County.

As county manager for two decades, Greene oversaw a multimillion-dollar budget and steered decisions affecting tens of thousands of residents. New public buildings sprung up, the county secured the gold standard AAA bond rating, and her bosses, the elected county commissioners, rewarded her with raises.

Greene was pulling down $250,000 a year and had just retired in July 2017, about to collect $15,000 a month in pension payouts for the rest of her life. And then it all came crashing down.

Greene left in handcuffs, the disgraced central figure in the biggest public corruption scandal in Buncombe’s history. She would later plead guilty and spend two years in federal prison for embezzling public money, accepting bribes and kickbacks, and filing a false federal tax return.

Before it ended, five others had been indicted and convicted: former assistant county managers Mandy Stone and Jon Creighton; Greene’s son Michael, the county’s former “business intelligence manager;” a county engineering contractor, Joe Wiseman; and County Commissioner Ellen Frost. Wanda Greene, prosecutors said, was the ringleader.

“A lot of people knew Wanda Green was controlling, but I never thought she was a thief in any way,” said Al Whitesides, a retired banker who joined the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in 2016, after many of Greene’s transgressions took place.  “Why someone like her, who was making that kind of living, would do that — I never understood it.”

Greene grew up ‘very, very poor’

Back living in Buncombe County after early release from federal prison, Greene sat down with Asheville Watchdog for an hour-long, exclusive interview to answer that question: why? Why did she do it? Why did she throw away decades of hard work, her reputation, and her future financial security?

Greene, now 71, said she grew up in East Waynesville in Haywood County, “very, very poor.”

“My mother worked at the flower shop, and we had a stepfather who worked when he worked,” Greene said. “I really … that’s crossing a line in terms of what I want to say.”

Her mother was also a “fabulous” seamstress and used that skill to augment the family income. Greene had four younger sisters, one of whom died in 2006.

Even now, Greene said, she still feels impelled to protect her sisters. Greene’s mother died at age 45, from lung cancer, when Greene was 25.

“I’d protect them from anything, if I could, and take care of them any way I could,” Greene said of her sisters. “I love them dearly.”

Greene said she used to joke that if you looked up the word “dysfunctional” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of their family in East Waynesville. She doesn’t say that any more, though, especially after spending two years in federal prison and meeting some women whose life stories truly defined dysfunction.

But her tale remains compelling. Greene graduated from Tuscola High School and started a family not long after.

“I got married when I was 18 and had my son when I was a little over 19,” Greene said, referring to Michael Greene.

Greene is now divorced from her former husband, Boyd Gene Greene. Her ex-husband was in the Navy, and the couple lived in Raleigh first, where Greene said she earned two years of college credit at N.C. State University.

He was transferred to Duluth, Minnesota, and Wanda Greene finished school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She took three of four sections of the Certified Professional Accountant exam there, and the couple was transferred to Southern California.

Greene worked in Ventura County, earning her master’s degree from California State University-Northridge. She also passed the fourth section of the CPA exam in California.

Wanda Greene worked for the county as an auditor, as a budget analyst, and then as vice president of a county-owned hospital, she said.

In her 40s, by then divorced, Greene moved back to North Carolina to work for Guilford County, which encompasses Greensboro. Greene came to Buncombe County in May 1994 as an assistant county manager. She was named county manager in 1997.

Greene acknowledged that she was a workaholic and very career-oriented.

“When you grow up poor and you’ve got to work early (in life) — and you’ve got to worry about things a lot of kids don’t have to worry about — you don’t think there’s ever time to relax,” Greene said. “You think you’ve got to work like that your whole life, whether you make $20 an hour or $200 an hour. I mean, there’s a drive in there.”

‘A culture of Bill Stanley’

When she came to Buncombe County, Greene said, she entered into a “culture of Bill Stanley,” the former educator, restaurateur and longtime Democratic county commissioner known for his big personality and, Greene said, for his expectations of freebies.

“Bill — and other commissioners went right along with anything he wanted to do anywhere we were — he had every expectation that somebody would pick up the check for him,” Greene said. “So, it was a culture that was created long before I ever arrived in Buncombe County.”

Stanley died in September 2020 at age 91. He served on the county Board of Commissioners for 24 years, a record, but his legacy remains stained.

Buncombe County commissioners voted in December 2019 to remove Stanley’s name from a county building “after learning that, while in office, Stanley accepted ‘things of value’ from corrupt county engineering contractor Joe Wiseman.”

Greene acknowledged that her misdeeds eclipsed those of Stanley.

“So I got careless; I just got really careless,” Greene said. “And I would say it really started after the [2012] election.”

The board expanded to seven members from five. And then, and Green said flatly, “We quit caring about the people we served.”

“And I was not the leader of that, nor was I the one being dragged along,” Greene said. “I was in the middle of it.”

Board of Commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman, who was elected in 2012, strongly disputes that notion, noting that other commissioners on the board then, including Joe Belcher and Mike Fryar, cared deeply about the county. The board had a Democratic majority but also included Republicans.

“We disagreed about a lot of things, but I certainly never questioned any of the commissioners I  served with and whether they cared about the citizens of Buncombe County,” Newman said. “They cared a great deal. So, I don’t agree with that at all.”

He did acknowledge that clearly — as evidenced by the federal prosecutions —  the county did have a culture of graft. But Newman was clear that he and other commissioners, with the exception of Bill Stanley and Ellen Frost (who was indicted for inappropriate spending related to high-end equestrian events), were not involved in Greene’s malfeasance.

Newman said commissioners and the county found clear evidence that Stanley “had personally benefited from some things he should not have as a county commissioner.”

“They were relatively small in nature, but it still shouldn’t have happened,” Newman said.

Commissioners agreed to remove Stanley’s name from the building, and his family did not fight the move, Newman said. Stanley was ill and living in a nursing home at the time.

An admitted ‘shopaholic’

To be clear, it was Greene who ran up the enormous bills on county purchase cards, buying household items and decorations she said were spread around to county offices. And she and other officials went on luxurious trips on the county dime, including visits to Key West, Florida, and Napa Valley, California.

An admitted “shopaholic” and a bargain hunter, Greene said shopping was a kind of therapy for her, and she did some of her best thinking while in stores, loading up the county purchase cards with hand soaps, candles, tables and chairs, and a tic tac toe wall hanging that became symbolic of her frivolous spending.

“Most of it went around the county,” Greene said. “I mean, it’d be in this office, that office in the courthouse. I’m not saying I didn’t have to have some of it. But like the tic tac toe thing — that sat on my desk until somebody wanted it, and I gave it to him.”

Greene said she has wondered if her poor childhood drove her obsessive shopping.

“I had the things that I wanted that I had bought, but I didn’t mind anybody at work having things that they wanted,” Greene said. “So, I probably bought a lot of things that other people already enjoyed. And I never thought twice about it.”

Asked if she had that little voice in her head nagging her about spending county money on such items, Greene said, “Sometimes I did. Sometimes I really did. But a lot of times I wasn’t buying it for me.”

Greene said the trips related to equestrian spending were legitimate, as the county was advertising itself and the Asheville Regional Airport to attract wealthy equestrians to the Tryon Equestrian Center in Polk County. Current commissioners dispute that, and the county sued Greene for repayment.

Greene did acknowledge that multiple trips were inappropriate.

“They were viewed as extravagant,” Greene said. “And I will tell you that seven of them were extravagant — but only seven.”

With her salary at the time, Greene acknowledged, she could have paid for trips to California wine country and south Florida herself.

“I don’t for a minute deny that I should not have done all of those,” Greene said. “But there wasn’t ever a day that I was just off, (where) you couldn’t get me on the phone no matter where I was, and the department heads knew it.”

She said she didn’t even enjoy some of the outings.

“To be honest with you, sometimes I wished I was home — that’s what the little voice said, ‘I wish I was home.’ And it’s more of a, ‘This is not fun.’ And I should have known better,” Greene said.

Through a January 2019 settlement agreement Greene repaid Buncombe County $750,000. In all, Greene said, she has paid nearly $1.5 million to settle with the county, the Internal Revenue Service, and to pay legal fees.

Is she a sociopath?

Newman, like Whitesides, said he was initially in disbelief when the revelations about Greene emerged in the summer of 2017, right around the time Greene was retiring. The former manager had a strong reputation for good financial management, getting projects done, and being one of the most experienced managers in the state, Newman said.

“So when this information started coming out that she might be embezzling funds from the county — using county funds to purchase things for herself that were clearly not legal — I was stunned,” Newman said. “I honestly found it very hard to believe, initially.”

Newman said he vividly remembers returning from a family vacation to a call from the county attorney, Michael Frue, and the county’s then-chief financial officer, Tim Flora, asking him to meet with them the next morning. They asked Newman if he had received a new iPad or any gift cards from the county, and Newman said no, he recalled.

Then he asked what was going on. The two officials told him Greene apparently had been misusing county purchase cards, and she had bought numerous iPads. She’d also used a county card to purchase furniture and had it shipped to her home, Newman said, recounting the conversation.

Greene had no good explanation for the purchases, he said he was told.

“I said, ‘You’re telling me the county manager is using county money to buy iPads, furniture and gift cards?’” Newman said. “I honestly could not believe it; it just didn’t make any sense. This person makes over $200,000 a year. Why would they be doing this? It doesn’t make any sense on any level.”

Newman, the county officials, and the Board of Commissioners attorney met again the next morning and then took the evidence to the District Attorney, who called in the State Bureau of Investigation. Ultimately, the U.S. Attorney’s Office took over the case.

Now, six years later, Newman still wonders why someone like Greene would risk “so much for something as petty as that.”

Some have even suggested that Greene, who can be charming and self-deprecating, may be a sociopath, defined as  someone lacking a conscience while being skillful at lying, among other traits.

“It’s fine to ask that question,” Greene said. “I don’t think I am. And I don’t think the psychologist (in the federal prison system) thought I was, either. I do have a conscience. I just think sometimes things get away from you.”

Throughout the interview, Greene acknowledged her wrongdoing.

“It doesn’t make it right,” she said. “And you know I think there’s … I don’t know, yet, the reason that this unfolded for me the way it did. I do think there’s a greater reason than I know yet.”

What the experts say

Experts in public fraud offered a couple of theories about why someone like Wanda Greene would risk her career and reputation for perks, home decor, and fancy trips.

Chelsea Binns, a professor in the Department of Security, Fire & Emergency Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, is also a security and investigations expert and holds a Ph.D. in criminal justice. She also is the author of four books on fraud and investigations, and she’s a licensed private investigator in New York state.

Binns said Greene’s case seems to fit well into the “fraud triangle theory” of occupational fraud. The three legs of the triangle are pressure, opportunity, and rationalization.

“The idea is that for occupational crime to occur, all three of the elements must be present,” Binns said. “If any one element is not present, the fraud will break down.”

The “culture of corruption” that Greene mentioned means she spotted the opportunity, “and she emulated that,” Binns said.

“Perhaps the opportunity included a lack of oversight, apparently,” Binns said. “Even if initially she was able to get away with some frauds, some oversight would’ve caught it earlier in the process.”

After Greene’s malfeasance came to light, Buncombe County enacted several security measures related to use of county purchase cards, rules regarding employee bonuses, and other measures. The county also hired a different auditing firm.

As far as the pressure part of the triangle, Greene clearly had a demanding, stressful job that required a lot of hours.

But Binns spotted something else from Asheville Watchdog’s previous stories about Greene: a sense of wanting to have some extras in life, and not just for herself.

“For a lot of what she did, it wasn’t just for her — it seems she was quite generous with her ill-gotten gains,” Binns said. “She funded trips for other people, life insurance and perks for other people.”

Perhaps, Binns speculated, Greene felt pressure to continue giving perks to staffers.

“And maybe she felt pressure to keep up with the Joneses,” Binns said. “Even though she was making a decent salary, she wanted to have the extras, to be the powerful person who was hooking up her friends.”

As far as rationalizing her behavior, Binns said she suspects Greene was not motivated by greed, as often is the case, but more by the sense that other people in the county had indulged in freebies, so she was entitled to some, too.

Binns said Greene fits the profile of a fraudster in other ways, as well. People over 60 are responsible for the greatest losses in frauds, she said, and for occupational fraudsters, it’s often their first foray into crime.

Told that many county officials, residents and even Board of Commissioners members couldn’t believe Greene had committed crimes when the news broke, Binns said, “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that.”

“I think this comes back to bias, and not being as curious as one could be in some cases,” Binns said. “Even we as investigators, we are inclined to believe that certain people just couldn’t do it. She seems to be one of those people — ‘Oh, not her. It couldn’t be her.’”

Sometimes, occupational fraudsters show little remorse for their actions, because deep down they feel they deserve more perks, more dinners, more trips. At one point, the investigation showed, Greene paid herself an extra $35,000 in compensation for dealing with Commissioner Mike Fryar, who she believed had caused her to work extra hours with his demands for information.

Binns said such actions are telling.

“She felt like she deserved more for her efforts, and if that wasn’t going to be provided to her naturally, she was just going to take it,” Binns speculated. “She feels justified enough in that choice, and she doesn’t feel apologies are needed. She really felt she was owed what she took.”

Those who commit workplace fraud often are in management, have been with the same organization for a long time, and they have a deep understanding of how the finances and inner workings work. In short, they “understand better how to get away with it more,” Binns noted.

“With a management role, you can better cover up your tracks,” Binns said.

Frank Anechiarico, a government and law professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York,  has written extensively on public corruption and is the managing editor of Public Integrity, a journal of the American Society of Public Administration. He finds the question of motive in fraud cases fascinating, and said Greene’s case is no exception.

“Often, I think people get into these jobs, and even if they’re paid fairly decent salaries, they convince themselves that what they’re sacrificing is worth considerably more: ‘It’s a tough job, and they deserve something extra,’” Anechiarico said.

He mentioned a theory in social science about the “righteousness in the commission of a crime” — the idea that not only can you get away with it, but it’s also morally correct, in your view.”

“It becomes a routine, a pattern,” Anechiarico said. “There’s a sense of, ‘Why should I start paying for it now when I didn’t pay for it last time?’”

A sense of entitlement often plays a key role in these kinds of cases, he added, coupled with the general atmosphere in the workplace,  and lax oversight.

Greene: Not “on her game”

For her part, Greene disputed having any sense of entitlement.

“It wasn’t like they owed me anything. I didn’t feel that way,” she said.

In 2015, Greene was diagnosed with breast cancer, and 2016 was a year filled with surgeries and incapacitating medical treatments, she said, quickly adding that this was no excuse for her behavior. But, she said, she was not “on her game” then.

“I will just tell you that I should have paid better attention,” Greene said. “And I probably should have walked away then.”

Greene said she did not think about getting caught.

“I wasn’t the only one that knew about it,” Greene said. “I wasn’t the only one doing it, and it’s not like I didn’t do some of it with permission.”

Reflecting on the repercussions of her actions, Greene said everyone has regrets for some past actions.

“You know, I think we all do things we regret, we wish we hadn’t done, whether we’re five or 50,” Green said, noting that her misdeeds are well-known and well-documented. “And I’m sure there’s other people who are very grateful that not all of their secrets, their behaviors are out there for the world to read.”

Greene said she never wanted to hurt anybody, and said she does regret causing pain in others’ lives.

“But I can’t be weighted down by that period of my life,” Greene said. “You pay for it. I’ve paid for it. I’ve been to prison. I’m still in a program. So I do think that in the paying (for it), that has benefited me in terms of the things I’ve learned and the calming me down about what’s important. And I’ve learned so much about different people and their upbringing.”

Lessons learned

Now living in a comfortable south Buncombe County home, which she shares with relatives, Greene remains in federal Bureau of Prisons custody. She still has one year of probation left to do, which starts at the end of March.

She said she would like to do some volunteer work eventually, when she’s cleared for it, but she has no plans to ever work again.

While Greene said most people she runs into are kind, or neutral, some are angry with her. She said thinks others should be more careful about casting stones at sinners.

“I am remorseful about having hurt people,” Greene said. “But in an equal part, I think I’ve done a lot of good. Sometimes I want to say, ‘Let me shake your hand. I’ve never met a person who’s never made a mistake before.’”

Greene is also adamant that she’ll continue to fight the county over its demand that she repay the equestrian spending, which she said had a legitimate purpose.

While she said she is remorseful, Greene also blames others, at least in part, for the wayward path she took.

Asked about lessons she’s learned, Greene joked that, “We should never name a building after anybody. And we should never put up a monument (named) after anybody, period.”

But pressed on the biggest epiphany she’s had, Greene again sidestepped taking full responsibility for her actions.

“Be careful who you believe,” Greene said. “Don’t take anything that they’re telling you without checking it out first. And know that there’s a price to pay — and decide if you want to pay it in this life or the next.”

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 protected].