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April 11, 2013

Howell, Knight blew whistle on Princeville problems

PRINCEVILLE — PRINCEVILLE — For nearly four years, Commissioner Ann Howell and Gwendolyn Knight have vigorously complained to anybody who would listen about the town's financial corruption that they said was led by Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates. For quite sometime, the commissioners said they felt like those complaints fell on deaf ears.

On Monday, the whistle blowers complaints officially were given the attention that they had hoped for. A report by the N.C. State Auditor office found Everette-Oates and three other town officials had used credit cards for questionable expenditures and or improper reimbursement for travel expenses without adequate supporting documentation.

"We talked to the Edgecombe County District Attorney, the sheriff, just about all of the local, state and federal elected officials, and it seemed like nobody was listening," Howell said. "We talked to everybody except the president of the United States and if I could have gotten close to him, I would had talked to him too. It looked like nobody cared. At one point, I thought about just giving up. It was too much for me to sit back and watch all of this corruption. It seemed like nobody cared.

"If it wasn't for the citizens and Commissioner (Gwen) Knight, I would have gave up. Now that this corruption has been uncovered, I'm glad that I stood my ground."

Everette-Oates was elected mayor to serve her second term in 2009. Commissioners Isabelle Purvis-Andrews, and Calvin Sherrod were also elected the same year. The trio virtually ran their election campaign together. Once they were sworn-in, a division between them and the other two commissioners immediately began. The division has been documented in meetings where bickering to the point of near physical confrontations was regular.

"I wasn't arguing because I had something against them, I was arguing because what they were doing was wrong," Knight said. "I understand that we can have different opinions about what is best for the town, but when it comes down to actual facts that can lead to mishandling the town's funds, that's when everything changes. That's not an opinion.

"They (the trio) was misleading everybody to think me and Commissioner Howell were the bad people. Now everybody sees who was right and who is wrong."

Knight and Howell said their frustration led them to have periodic outbursts that prompted the mayor to kick them out of several meetings. The outbursts became so rapid that the trio agreed that Town Attorney Charles Watts should draw up an "anti-disruption policy" to prevent further outbursts. The policy passed by a 3-2 vote. In part the policy states that if a commissioner failed to comply with the direction of the presiding officer with the respect to order, that commissioner would be asked to leave the meeting.

Knight violated the policy with an outburst and the mayor removed her from the meeting. Knight was fined $450 which equals her three months stipend. Knight sued the town. She eventually won the settlement. Watts, as directed, appealed the case to District Court. According to the state audit investigative report, Watts was paid 24,125 in legal fees to defend against Knight's suit.

Knight also had a run-in with former interim town manager in which a restraining order was placed against her. It became apparent that Knight was angry. She missed several meetings and the meetings that she attended, she often stared in hostility at the trio.

"It came to a point where I was just mad because everything they were doing  was personally against me and Commissioner Howell," Knight said. "But what they didn't understand, was that they were hurting our citizens.

"It seemed like they were winning and we couldn't do anything about it. I thought about just resigning because I was getting to a point where I thought that a physical assault could happen at any time."

The shift of the trio began to change after the Local Government Commission took over the town's finances July 30, 2012. The LGC auditors combed through the town's finance books an apparently found Everette-Oates and former finance officer, Diana Draughn had improperly used a combined $11,405 on questionable credit cards charges expenditures. Another investigation revealed Everette-Oates, Purvis-Andrews and Boyd were improperly reimbursed a combined $4,112 for travel expenses without adequate supporting documentation. LGC forwarded those findings to the state auditor's office.

When the findings were publicly revealed, Knight and Howell became even more furious. Their frustration lingered on longer than Howell had hoped.

"At that point I didn't know what to do," Howell said. "Everything that was before me was enough evidence to bring charges against them. For the citizens sake, I wanted them removed from office before they did something that would cause the town to lose its charter. They just wasn't moving fast enough for me."

Soon after the takeover, Sherrod began to show signs of distancing himself from the trio. Then recently he began voting with Howell and Knight. That perhaps was a major move that prevented the town from sending a letter that was written by Watts, to the state auditor, addressing the findings. The letter is confidential therefore details were not discussed publicly. During a special called meeting on March 28, Howell, Knight and Sherrod voted 3-0 to not send the letter.

After that meeting, Sherrod said that he wasn't taking sides when he first came in office and he is not taking sides now. "I'm just voting for what's best for the town," he said.

Howell said she is glad that Sherrod has finally seen the "horrific financial condition that the mayor has place the town in." Howell said she is also glad that she and Knight kept blowing the whistle.

"I get nervous to even think about what could have happen if Commissioner Knight and I were not there to fight for the town," Howell said. "When Gwen thought about giving up, I encouraged her to stay and fight. When I thought about giving up, Gwen encouraged me to stay and fight. So, if you want to call us whistle blowers, we'll take that. We blew the whistle to make sure the oldest town in America charted by black keeps its charter."

 

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