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Project Homestead morphs into the Wray affair

by Jordan Green

In November 2005, with a municipal election exactly a week away, Greensboro City Council members found that they remained the target of public suspicions about the collapse of Project Homestead, a non-profit housing organization whose executive director committed suicide as a criminal investigation began in earnest.

Because the city had financially supported Project Homestead, the most pointed question formed by constituents was this: What political loyalties might have bound council members to the Rev. Michael King and moved them to vote to commit city funds to the nonprofit? Of course, the scandal was about more than financial mismanagement and the use of public tax money. In Greensboro, it was bound to also become a crucible over which issues of race, corruption and transparency would be argued.

“It’s come up at all the candidate forums, about Project Homestead,” said Councilman Tom Phillips, then an at-large representative. “This is something that will just not seem to go away. I’m going make a motion that we ask District Attorney Stuart Albright that if there’s not a criminal investigation he release the report so we can clear the air and move on.”

The report would not be released, nor would the issue be put to rest. Instead, another scandal would succeed Project Homestead, and the city’s toxic stew of racial distrust would be reinvigorated with a new set of circumstances and a new cast of characters.

With a new city council sworn in, police Chief David Wray announced his resignation rather than provide an explanation for allegations of racial profiling and disparate treatment within the department to his boss, City Manager Mitchell Johnson. As an internal police investigation mounted, joined by a criminal investigation that was promptly passed up from the local district attorney’s office to the State Bureau of Investigation, the human relations aspect of the city’s efforts to reform its police department would metastasize in distrust and acrimony.

An internal report on alleged wrongdoing in the police department was leaked to the News & Record, the city’s daily newspaper. Suspicion for the leak centered on District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, who would find herself outnumbered in an 8-1 vote to subject council members to polygraph examinations to determine the identity of the leaker. Bellamy-Small’s eight colleagues would also vote to prohibit city staff from accompanying her to constituent meetings to discuss problems within the police department. They would also decide in closed session to launch a forensic investigation to determine whose copy was leaked, and later publicly link the leaked document to Bellamy-Small. The District 1 representative has unequivocally denied responsibility for the leak.

That wasn’t the end of it. In February 2007, with Bellamy-Small having grown further estranged from her colleagues, at-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten called for her resignation. Shortly afterwards voters in District 1 initiated a recall initiative against their councilwoman. The treatment experienced by Bellamy-Small at the hands of her colleagues, the local media and citizens has prompted accusations of racism led by the Pulpit Forum, a network of African-American pastors.

On the other side of the ideological ledger, a concerted campaign to discredit police department whistleblowers, City Attorney Linda Miles, City Manager Mitchell Johnson and the City Council, which has unanimously backed the manager and his staff, has been waged by Wray, along with sympathetic journalists and bloggers.

Diversity

On Jan. 10, 2006, Mayor Keith Holliday told his colleagues that the Bicentennial Commission had requested that the council add three new positions to the commission to allow for the inclusion of a Latino, a Native American and a member of “a religious” group.

“I see this as certainly not a bad thing at all and potentially good,” Holliday said.

Council voted 8-1 to add the three positions, Phillips being the lone dissenter.

At its next meeting the council voted to appoint Jennifer Revels Baxter, Cathy Levinson and Ruth Cathy Hinshaw to the commission. The second time around Gatten joined Phillips in opposition.

“The whole appointment process wasn’t about race, religion and ethnic background, so if we’re going to do it for three people we need to do it for everybody,” Phillips said. “I think it’s wrong to be caving in to one person who was whining about it.”

The council has also broadly supported affirmative action, with one outspoken conservative dissenting when a year later District 4 Councilman Mike Barber voted against the city’s Minority and Women Business Enterprise Plan. The vote was only a routine action to amend the plan to maintain compliance with federal and state reporting requirements, program manager Kathleen Smith said.

“Any time we depart from the lowest-cost, highest-quality bid and add a layer of bureaucracy to create some other layer of bureaucracy, that raises issues,” Barber said. “It was mentioned about compliance, but it’s not a federal requirement that we have this program. Many local jurisdictions in North Carolina and around this country don’t have this program.”

Bellamy-Small protested, “We cannot cut everything that may appear to be fluff, because that impacts our quality of life. I really feel that Greensboro tries to maintain itself as a city that goes beyond the basics to provide the best quality of life for its citizens.”

Transparency about what?

In April 2006, the same month the council voted to undergo polygraph tests to determine the identity of the person responsible for leaking the RMA report, then-interim police Chief Tim Bellamy disclosed that private conversations with black community leaders had been recorded under the watch of Wray, his predecessor. The city manager later acknowledged that the object of scrutiny had been a High Point violent crime task force member working with the Greensboro police department, not the black leaders who she and her colleague visited.

The disclosure grabbed the attention of Greensboro business elites, who raised alarm at least in part because of concerns about how the scandal would affect the city’s ability to recruit new businesses.

“The recent allegations of taping the conversations of ordinary Greensboro citizens and of racial profiling are disturbing to us all,” said Greensboro Partnership President and CEO Patrick Danahy, as eight members of his executive committee stood behind him. “It appears that checks and balances within the Greensboro Police Department have been compromised. In addition, surveillance of private citizens is totally unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by our community.

“We need to deal with this issue,” he concluded, “make appropriate changes, and move forward to make our community a world-class city with economic opportunities, respect for individuals and greater quality of life for all.”

Bellamy-Small made it known that she shared Danahy’s desire for transparency. She announced that she would hold a constituent meeting in the public library branch in Glenwood the following Monday. A colleague who would prove to be Bellamy-Small’s nemesis interjected that she didn’t think the public meeting was appropriate.

Gatten made a motion to instruct the city manager and his staff, including the legal and police departments to not attend public meetings related to the police investigation. It passed 8-1.

“What are we afraid of?” Bellamy-Small asked. “If we have nothing to hide than we ought to be able to meet with the citizens. Maybe your citizens don’t care about it, but mine do…. In my district we’re being impacted by the fact that this does have implications of race. My district is seventy-five percent African American, so I have to be responsive to those folks, plus the other folks in my district who are asking how the tax dollars are spent and what’s in the RMA report.”

Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, an at-large representative who is now a candidate for mayor, counseled patience.

“This is a very sensitive issue,” she said. “I think the ramifications of what’s going to happen in the end… I’m even thinking of how I’m going to say what I’m going to say now. I think it’s risky for you to address your constituents. I think at this juncture it would be more frustrating to constituents to hear [City Attorney] Linda [Miles] and Mitchell say, ‘I can’t discuss that, I can’t discuss that,’ because they really can’t.”

One of the ironies of the suspicion among Bellamy-Small’s colleagues that she was the leaker of the RMA report is that the councilwoman has long been at odds with the News & Record. The news media’s inability to get the story right was, in Bellamy-Small’s view, a strong argument for going directly to the public by bringing the city manager and city attorney to a constituent meeting.

“I want more than anyone else to resolve the situation with the Greensboro Police Department because I know personally that this did not start here, so that once and for all we make sure this never happens again.” said Bellamy-Small, a former Greensboro police officer. “I’ve worked too hard in the last two and a half years to establish an up-front relationship with folks in my district to back off from this. We cannot sweep this thing under the rug and we do have to deal with it boldly and get rid of it.”

Yvonne Johnson expressed confidence that in the end the city would correct any problems in the police department, and the city’s progressive image would remain intact.

“I know of many cities where people do sweep things under the rug,” she said. “Things just like this go on and the people never know about it. I think we’re unique in that we faced it, we’re confronting it and when it is over we will report to the public what we have encountered, not putting people at risk by revealing names and violating laws. I believe this council would want the public to know generally what has happened. I am proud of this city for that. I am proud of this council.”

Project Homestead redux

Later in the same evening, Holliday resurrected Project Homestead as a matter of public trust.

“I think maybe it’s time, now that we know we’re not going to get the investigative report – that’s what I was waiting on – to talk about the funding and where that money went, which we know is in some second mortgages and land purchases,” the mayor said. “That is something we can talk about and reveal. That’s something I think we’d all like to give to the public, as to tax money allocated by this council.

“Do y’all want to reveal information?” he asked. “That’s something we could reveal and I think would actually support a lot of our contentions that the money that was misused could have been considered profit money… and that could be laid out I think with some combination of help from our auditing and Mr. Scott’s organization [the city’s Housing and Community Department, headed by Andy Scott] that might be very revealing to our public. Unless somebody’s got a problem with that.”

Holliday’s proposal was met with silence until Barber, who was elected to the council two years after Project Homestead unraveled, responded.

“I just wonder why we keep picking at the scab,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we give the public, it’s just a really bad taste in our mouth about what happened, and a report or any other taste is just going to perpetuate that bad taste. I opt here for closure.”

District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, another newcomer, echoed his sentiments.

“We got a whole lot to deal with right now, and if the case is closed, let’s close it.”

Little else has been revealed about Project Homestead since then. In contrast, substantial new information about the Wray affair has come to light through media accounts and official disclosure, but the overall effect has been to stoke ideological disagreement as various groups fight to shape public perception over the meaning of the scandal.

Councilwoman Sandra Anderson Groat, an at-large member who will likely seek reelection, said she has been a vocal proponent of transparency.

“My first suggestion was that we redact the RMA report and leave it in the legal room on the conference room table,” she said in a recent interview. “I truly believe that government should be as transparent as possible. The taxpayers pay the bills and have a right to know. I feel that it would have been better if we had given as much controlled information as we could so it’s not such a big, bad secret.”

While she voted to authorize the polygraphs and submitted to the examination, Groat said it was not her proudest moment.

“It was a very insulting experience,” she said. “As I was getting strapped up, I thought this was something I would never do in my life. I guess I wasn’t brave enough to say, ‘I don’t want to take the test,’ because I didn’t want to put suspicion on my head.”

Yvonne Johnson said she could have probably gotten away with not taking the test because she was the only council member who didn’t take her copy of the RMA report out of city hall.

“I regret that it happened at all,” she said subsequently. “In terms of having someone be accused of leaking, I have no idea whether [Bellamy-Small] did or didn’t. It’s an unfortunate situation.

“What I want is for it to be closed so we can disclose the information to the public,” Johnson said. “As soon as it can be disclosed and over the happier I will be. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long. What I really would like is to have it resolved, and to have us say, ‘This is what we’ve done and this is why we did it.'”

The NC Department of Justice promised to announce whether it planned to prosecute the case in February. Then the projected date was pushed back to April. The investigation has long been completed, and is currently under review by a state special prosecutor, spokeswoman Noelle Talley has said. Johnson indicated she is as ignorant as anyone else about why the case has stalled.

“I have no earthly idea,” she said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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