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State auditor: Rocky Mount probe not racially motivated; 'We have irrefutable evidence'

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One of North Carolina’s highest-ranking elected officials is pushing back against a lawmaker’s accusations of racism and collusion.

State Auditor Beth Wood said Monday evening that inflammatory statements made by state Rep. Shelly Willingham concerning her office’s audit of Rocky Mount city government are utter nonsense.

“Rep. Willingham said me and the mayor of Rocky Mount are working in collusion. Let me make it clear: I have never even spoken to the mayor until today,” Wood said. “I have spoken to Rep. Willingham twice. I have to say, the statement he made today doesn’t sound at all like the man I spoke to before.”

Willingham said the meritless attack on Mayor Pro-tem Andre Knight, Councilman Reuben Blackwell and City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney is part of a pattern of character assassinations of black leaders.

Wood is white; Willingham is black. Knight, Blackwell and Small-Toney are black. All five officials are Democrats.

Wood’s report details 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 extravagant meals.

Wood said many of Willingham’s criticisms fall flat.

Willingham said he wanted to know who contacted the state auditor’s office and spurred the investigation. Wood said complainants’ identities are protected by state statute.

Willingham also wanted to know about other city utility customers whose unpaid bills were written off as bad debt. Wood said the councilman is the only city leader who received preferential treatment as far as utility bills on the magnitude of $47,407 over a 20-year span.

“We investigated the many allegations of fraud. We haven’t looked at everything,” Wood said. “The tone at the top leadership was astounding. The city hasn’t been able to offer anything to refute the findings. It’s just been a distraction of the truth. I’m disappointed by their misrepresentation of the facts. We have irrefutable evidence. A council member received write-offs for his utility bills. And it is who you think it is.”

Mayor Sandy Robinson has set a special meeting set for Thursday. Wood said that if the city doesn’t confirm the councilman’s identity by the end of that meeting, then she would do so.

This newspaper has obtained records indicating Knight is the unnamed councilman who’s referenced in the report. Also, the report clearly states the councilman in question currently serves on the council and has done so for the past several years, leaving few options as to his identity.

As far as the accusation of racism, Wood pointed out that many of the subjects in the audit are white, including former Mayor David Combs and former City Manager Steve Raper.

Wood is a member of the Council of State, the 10 members of the state’s executive branch who are elected to office. In addition to leading their individual departments, Council of State members advise Gov. Roy Cooper on state policy matters.