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STATE AUDIT'S AFTERMATH

NAACP sides with Knight in utility bill scandal

Posted on June 30, 2021

Local newsTop news
Rocky Mount City Councilman Andre Knight, left, and State Auditor Beth Wood recently addressed a 2020 state audit showing the city of Rocky Mount wrote off more than $47,000 in utility bills Knight owed.

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Rocky Mount City Councilman Andre Knight, left, and State Auditor Beth Wood recently addressed a 2020 state audit showing the city of Rocky Mount wrote off more than $47,000 in utility bills Knight owed.

lkay@springhopeenterprise.com | 252-265-8117

ROCKY MOUNT — Proposed state legislation seeking increased transparency and accountability in local government promotes racial animus and targets duly elected Black officials, according to a statement the North Carolina NAACP issued this week.

Rocky Mount City Councilman Andre Knight, who is Black, and N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood, who is white, have traded swipes in local media since Wood released a 2020 report showing city employees wrote off more than $47,000 in unpaid utility bills Knight owed.

In the audit’s aftermath, state Sen. Lisa Barnes, R-Nash, who is white, introduced Senate Bill 473 to strengthen state audits and make it illegal for elected officials not to pay for local government services. The bill passed the Senate and is making its way through the House, with a vote expected after the July 4 break.

RELATED STORY: Bill divides Rocky Mount's state senators 

The legislation addresses a need that clearly exists at a local level and will make sure local government officials are not able to operate above the law without consequence in North Carolina, Barnes said.

The bill doesn’t name Rocky Mount or any specific local government.

‘1898 RACIST PLAYBOOK’

Wood said Tuesday that the bill is important because no state law on the books right now stops local elected officials from taking advantage of the their position.

Conversely, the NAACP sees the bill as a bipartisan effort to stop the will and impact of the Black vote in Rocky Mount, according to a press release titled “Statement Regarding the Beth Woods/Lisa Barnes Racist Legislation” issued Monday by T. Anthony Spearman, president of the N.C. State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, a civil rights organization whose stated purpose is to ensure equal rights and eliminate racial discrimination.

“The truth is that Beth Woods and Lisa Barnes, a Democrat and a Republican, are operating tactics and strategies out of the old 1898 racist playbook,” Spearman wrote.

Knight often references the Wilmington massacre on Nov. 10, 1898, when a mob of white people overthrew the legitimate Black government, killed an estimated 200 Black people, burned Black businesses and destroyed the only Black-owned newspaper in the southeastern North Carolina port city.

Spearman also compared the audit and legislation to the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which whites burned Black homes and killed as many as 300 Black people.

‘ATTEMPT TO DISCREDIT ME’

“I recognize the comparisons for what they are,” Wood said. “It’s an attempt to discredit me because the alternative is if I’m believed, it means Knight would be asked to step down.”

The legislation isn’t about race and isn’t racially motivated, Barnes said. Instead, she explained, it seeks to provide greater oversight for elected officials who owe their constituents transparency, integrity and most importantly accountability.

“It’s fundamental that a government or elected official should never be given preferential treatment or allowed to use intimidation or undue influence because of their position, and SB 473 provides that reassurance to all North Carolinians,” Barnes said.

RELATED STORY: IRS notified of councilman's debt write-offs

Spearman claims Wood launched her investigation at the encouragement of an “active network of Trump supporters, local media personalities and vocal opponents of duly elected and appointed Black leadership.”

In addition to Knight’s utility bills, Wood’s report also found City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, who is Black, claimed meal reimbursements outside city policy and the community-based nonprofit Opportunities Industrialization Center unfairly received a $8,000 roof grant for a medical facility. The OIC is chaired by Knight and led by its CEO, Councilman Reuben Blackwell, who is Black.

“The truth is that Councilman Knight never even knew that $47,000 was written off, never voted for the write off and never lobbied for the write off. The truth is that the utility debt was written off along with hundreds of other citizens who were incorrectly billed or had debt that could no longer be collected because it exceeded the statute of limitations. The truth is that Councilman Knight has paid, in a shorter timeframe than the auditor alleges he owes money, more than $180,000 in utility bills to the city of Rocky Mount,” Spearman said in the prepared statement.

KNIGHT’S STORY CHANGES

Knight first said he wasn’t the unnamed councilman referenced in the audit report. After The Enterprise published emails showing former City Manager Charles Penny, who is Black, and former finance director Amy Staton, who is white, said they would personally handle Knight’s utility account, taking it out of city collectors’ hands.

Staton is set to soon begin employment as the city of Wilson’s chief financial officer.

Knight said he didn’t know about the preferential treatment, then that he did pay the bill. Later, he said his write-off was only a fraction of the city’s budget.

“Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know about the write-offs, which he did; Councilman Knight didn’t notice that after he picked up the phone and made a call that his utilities weren’t turned off when he didn’t pay for them?” Wood asked.

During her 13 years in office, Wood has investigated officials not only in Rocky Mount, but Manteo, Spring Lake, Bellhaven, Tarboro and Princeville.

“The truth is that Beth Wood was summoned to Rocky Mount by a network of white nationalists who conspired with city employees who have been infuriated with the appointment of senior level Black city officials,” Spearman said.

Wood has repeatedly said she received more than 100 tips to her office’s hotline, and she is bound by state statute to investigate even just one complaint.

POLITICAL CLAIMS

“Just as the Trump inspired GOP has vowed to disallow the validity of the 2020 election of President Joe Biden and has gas lit tens of millions of Trump followers and their elected representatives in General Assemblies across America, and in North Carolina, this bill too joins in those efforts to strip Black people of their vote and their voice,” Spearman said.

The North Carolina NAACP has followed Wood’s frequent visits to Rocky Mount, Spearman said.

“She lunches and chats with well known Trump sympathizers which is her right,” Spearman said. “But she then targets the power of her office, which the people of North Carolina have given her, to attempt to dismantle the work and persona of leaders who have brought life and revitalization to a town that was slowly dying from natural disasters and inequitable development.”

Spearman said Wood and Barnes are targeting Knight, Blackwell, Small-Toney and the OIC because they have been key in sustaining a Black majority of elected leaders in the city and Edgecombe County.

“Could it be that supporters of Wood and Barnes are upset that Blacks now hold the office of Rocky Mount Police and Fire Chiefs, Superintendent of the Edgecombe (and until recently Nash County) School System, President of the Edgecombe Community College, Edgecombe County Sheriff, District Attorney, Judges and State Representatives and Senator?” Spearman asked in the release.

DA: NO CRIMINAL CONDUCT

Edgecombe County Sheriff Clee Atkinson said he wasn’t familiar with the press release.

This newspaper sent questions to other officials Spearman referenced to inquire whether they support Knight or had been consulted about the NAACP statement prior to its release. Responses weren’t received in time for this story.

District Attorney Robert Evans said he has no probable cause to believe any money owed to the city resulted from criminal conduct.

Spearman said the Nash County Republican Party is vigorously working to dismantle public school integration and has intentionally disinvested in schools in Black neighborhoods.

“The NC NAACP calls on Governor Cooper and every member of the General Assembly to see this bill for what it is and lump it with the rest of the GOP led voter suppression bills to strip Black voters of their right to vote and to choose their own leaders,” Spearman said in the release. “We call upon them to oppose S.B. 473 and cease their efforts to target Black leadership in Rocky Mount and across our state. Your actions are being watched and monitored by our organization and every civil rights entity in our state. Your legacy is being defined by your votes, your words and your actions.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

Click on the bolded, hyperlinked headlines below to read The Enterprise's previous stories on the N.C. Office of the State Auditor's 2020 report on the city of Rocky Mount: 

Rocky Mount tries to pull back emails on councilman's unpaid utility bills

Emails confirm Councilman Andre Knight at center of Rocky Mount utility bill scandal 

Rocky Mount councilmen, mayor spar over state audit's claims of wasted money

Rocky Mount dealing with state audit's aftermath: Councilman rebuffs report in TV interview

Rocky Mount postpones special meeting; council to discuss state audit

Rocky Mount mayor: 4 council members refusing to attend emergency meeting

State auditor: Rocky Mount probe not racially motivated

Lawmaker calls foul on Rocky Mount audit, says report designed to 'attack and discredit people of color'

Rocky Mount mayor calls on councilman to step down after nearly $50K in utility bill write-offs

Rocky Mount mayor holding press conference on state audit's findings

Nash GOP calls on Knight, Blackwell to resign Rocky Mount City Council seats

Steak, lobster, credit and free utilities: Audit says Rocky Mount misused taxpayer funds

2 councilmen, city manager, former mayor implicated in Rocky Mount financial probe

Rocky Mount wrote off nearly $50K in councilman's unpaid utility bills  

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