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

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ROCKY MOUNT — A state legislator has accused a high-ranking state official of colluding with Rocky Mount’s mayor in a war on the city’s black leadership.

“There appears to be a pattern of individual assassination of black individuals’ character and a personal attack made on black leadership who were duly elected by the citizens and justifiably appointed by the city council,” said state Rep. Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe. He said an investigative report released Friday by N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood attacks two black elected officials and a black female administrator without merit.

Wood is white; Willingham is black. The three officials Willingham mentioned are Mayor Pro-tem Andre Knight, Councilman Reuben Blackwell and City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney. All five are Democrats.

Wood’s report includes information on Knight benefiting from write-offs of nearly $50,000 in unpaid utility bills, a nonprofit run by Blackwell inappropriately receiving city grant funding and Small-Toney spending taxpayer dollars on expensive surf and turf meals. 

“One of the primary concerns is the possible collusion between Wood and city of Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson,” Willingham said.

Roberson called for Knight to resign Monday. Roberson is a white Republican.

Willingham said he’s seen Wood conduct questionable investigations before, including an audit of the ABC Commission.

“She’s lied to my face,” Willingham said, calling the mayor’s actions in the aftermath of the report theatrics.

Wood didn’t return messages left with her office.

Willingham said his constituents want to know what complaints were made; who the 213 complainants mentioned in the report are; if the complaints made led to an audit and no arrest has been made, why there are ongoing discussions between Wood and Roberson; how the individuals in the report were named; why only one account-holder who received write-offs was investigated and not others; who the other account holders who received write-offs are and the amounts of those forgiven debts; and why the current city manager is being implicated when she was not employed until 2017 and many of the allegations date back to 1999. 

“After reading the state auditor’s final investigative report, including the city’s response to the auditor’s finding and the city of Rocky Mount pre-audit press release, one can only ascertain that there is a single reason behind this audit — to attack and discredit people of color,” Willingham said. 

The city’s economy is progressing and developing at an unprecedented rate. Private and public developers are investing in downtown and building new housing, which is good news and the result of collaboration with all people for the benefit of everyone in the entire region, Willingham said.

Willingham also questions the timing of the report’s release amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The 4,000 hours of investigation conducted by state auditors occurred mostly last year before the novel coronavirus appeared on anyone’s radar.

“As a member of the House State and Local Government Committee, I will seek advice on my concerns about the State Auditor’s Office might be addressed,” Willingham said. “This is not the end of it. It’s not just Rocky Mount. I will do everything I can to find out what’s happening at the State Auditor’s Office.”

Wood is a member of the Council of State, 10 members of the state’s executive branch who are elected to office, making her one of the highest elected officials in North Carolina.

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