It seems like just yesterday that we were chiding The N&O’s ‘CRACK’ investigative team for ignoring meaty stories involving the lieutenant governor and state auditor to pursue a three-part ‘nothing-burger’ on insurance commissioner Mike Causey.
State Auditor Beth Wood was charged Tuesday with using a state-owned vehicle for personal errands — the latest chapter in a saga that has upended the long tenure of a government watchdog who has enjoyed bipartisan support.
Wood used an assigned, state-owned vehicle in 2021 and 2022 for private purposes, including traveling back and forth to regularly scheduled hair appointments and dental appointments out of town, according to an indictment handed Tuesday down by a Wake County grand jury. She also traveled to shopping centers and spas “where she was not engaged in business in her official capacity,” the indictment said. […]
This is a good start, folks. But we’re STILL waiting on the details about the video showing at least three women hustling Wood away from the crash scene while two guys are all over the crashed car. Of course, the police had not yet arrived. But we’ll take it. For now.
[…] Wood’s driving habits and state-vehicle use came under scrutiny following the Dec. 8 incident in which Wood crashed a state-issued Toyota sedan into a parked car in downtown Raleigh. Wood was charged in that incident. The state then suspended her vehicle assignment as police investigated the crash.
After the suspension was issued, she used a separate state vehicle for personal trips, according to an affidavit. An agent with the State Bureau of Investigation presented evidence to jurors, including GPS data, which eventually led to an indictment, records show. Wood was charged Tuesday with private use of a publicly owned vehicle, a misdemeanor, following an eight-month investigation. Some of the trips detailed in the indictment happened before the Dec. 8 crash, some after.
In a statement Tuesday, Wood said she reimbursed the state on a monthly basis for use of a state vehicle that was permanently assigned to her. “I purposely overpaid for my commuting miles to make certain it covered any personal use over and above commuting,” she said.
Wood is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 4. An investigation is ongoing, according to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
Suspension and warning
The state auditor’s job is to make sure government programs are using their resources as efficiently as possible while complying with state and federal regulations.
In 2019 Wood took the state’s Motor Fleet Management Division to task for failing to keep a close enough eye on vehicle usage, reporting in audit that 61 of the state’s then 7,688 permanently assigned vehicles were assigned to people no longer employed by the state. Seven were assigned to employees without a valid North Carolina drivers license, the report said.
That audit also criticized the state’s Motor Fleet Management division for failing to ensure state agencies complied with commuter requirements. The report laid out several examples of unauthorized commuting and recommended that the state take a tighter rein on the issue. Among other things, the audit complained that the state wasn’t conducting periodic inspections of vehicle assignments or going over travel logs to identify misuse.
In the months after news of the Dec. 8 hit-and-run came to light, questions about Wood’s compliance with state policies arose
Wood was charged Dec. 12 with misdemeanor hit-and-run resulting in property damage after the crash. She pleaded guilty to the charge in March. She said at the time of her conviction that she had been attending a holiday gathering before the crash. She said she had consumed two glasses of wine at the party but was not impaired at the time of the crash. State employees are prohibited from driving a state-owned vehicle while under the influence of any alcohol.
In January, as police investigated the incident, Motor Fleet Management, the state agency that manages state-owned cars, suspended Wood’s vehicle assignment. The next month, she was notified of a possible state policy violation for commuting in an agency-issued car.
State employees who are issued cars are allowed to use the vehicles to commute under certain conditions. But commuting isn’t permitted in cars that are assigned to agencies, Robert Riddle, the director of state’s motor fleet division, told Wood in a Feb. 3 letter.
The February motor fleet letter added support to details in travel logs that had previously been obtained by WRAL News. Wood logged miles in a state-owned Toyota Camry starting as early as Dec. 12 — the day she was charged following the Dec. 8 crash that put her state-issued car out of commission, documents show.
The logs indicated that the car was used to get to speaking engagements, home, the office, doctor’s appointments, church on a Sunday and other destinations. Most of the entries appeared to be filled out, signed or initialed by Wood. One page of the logs, detailing use from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, listed Wood as the driver.
Signatures, handwriting and other details on the logs, such as destinations and addresses, indicated that Wood regularly logged miles in the undamaged car through the end of January, including on Jan. 24 — the day Riddle notified Wood that the division had temporarily revoked the crashed car. Riddle didn’t prohibit Wood from driving state-owned cars at the time, but he did discourage her from doing so.
The affidavit obtained Tuesday indicated that Wood traveled frequently to Blue Water Spa, a Raleigh business that specializes in hair removal, skin tightening and other skin-care services. The SBI sought payment records and other documentation related to that business to support its investigation.
State employees who are assigned state-owned vehicles are expected to abide by rules and regulations outlined by the motor fleet management division. “The same rules and regulations apply to all drivers of state-owned vehicles regardless of the employee’s position,” the state Department of Administration, which oversees the motor fleet, said in an email in January.
‘I have made mistakes’
“There are some circumstances that are in my life,” Wood told the House Oversight Committee, which was meeting as part of an inquiry into the state unemployment office. “And I recognize four years from now I will be 74 years old. So if there are some things I want to do. I need to get them done now.”
In a statement issued later that day, Wood said: “I know that I have made mistakes along the way, but I have acknowledged them and have learned from them.”[…]
After news of the crash broke, Wood dodged questions about the charge — an approach that surprised some political observers who had come to know her as a champion of government transparency. It took Wood more than a month to publicly acknowledge the crash. By the time she did, some public support for her had dwindled. Despite support from Republican members of the Council of State, the North Carolina Republican Party called on her to resign.
The auditor’s office reviews the financial operations and regulatory processes of more than 30 state agencies, municipalities, as well as its public universities and community colleges. State law gives the auditor broad powers to examine the records of those places, and gives her the power to summon people to answer questions under oath.
Wood ultimately paid about $7,700 in out-of-pocket funds to cover repairs and towing related to the crash. She previously apologized for her involvement in what she described as “a serious mistake.” […]