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Investigators probe slaying of community activist

Authorities continue to investigate the murder of community activist Johnny Cunningham, whose body was found next to his truck Thursday morning in the driveway of his home in the 3000 block of Old Battleboro Road after Edgecombe County deputies conducted a welfare check.

Detective Lt. Wilson Muse of the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office said Friday that investigators are pursuing a lead in the case. The day before, he said there was a person of interest, although no arrests had been made as of mid-afternoon on Friday.

Muse said the 60-year-old Cunningham was shot at least three times with a firearm of still-unknown caliber. He said the size of the weapon and the number of times Cunningham was shot will not be known until autopsy results are received.

The public was asked Thursday to help in the investigation as the sheriff’s office sought information about anything anyone may have seen or heard out of the ordinary that might have happened between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Wednesday night in the area of Cunningham’s home.

Over the years, Cunningham had both battled with and supported the Rocky Mount City Council as a frequent attendee and speaker at council meetings.

On Friday, council members observed a moment of silence in Cunningham’s memory before starting their workday at the annual council retreat being held at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville.

In October 2014, Cunningham founded The ReGroup 1, a nonprofit organization established to provide jobs and education for felons to help turn their lives around.

Cunningham, who had been incarcerated himself at a young age, said he wanted to use the same hands with which he had committed crimes to help others work to turn their lives around.

He told the Telegram in a 2017 news story that, “Even though it was over 35 years ago, I think about my past every day — but what I want to do is hope God works through me to help others avoid the pain I went through and be positive with their life.”

In that article, Cunningham, who was then mulling a run for the District 3 council seat, said, “The city council position should be citizen-government — not an inside track to receive government funding for projects that benefit the council member. I talk to the common man in Rocky Mount every day. They are sick of lip service of helping the poor, with no results, while lining their own pockets.”

Anyone with information about the case can call the sheriff’s office at 252-641-7911 and ask for a detective or email tips to emuse@edgecombeco.com.

Team Cold Case is offering a reward of up to $15,000 for information leading to an arrest in the slaying and can be reached at 252-406-6736.

Retreat puts focus on downtown housing

The City of Rocky Mount’s 2021 retreat was hardly confined to comments and discussions by the municipal officials.

During the early part of the last day of a series of work sessions, Garland Jones, who serves on the Central City Revitalization Panel, made clear his belief in the need for Rocky Mount to have affordable housing as a key part of improving the city.

“When other people come into our city and ride through our city, we have parts of our city that look bad,” Jones said on Friday.

Jones said the time has come to make those parts of Rocky Mount look better.

“And housing is critical for this city, like anything else,” Jones said. “There are times when we argued — and we did it years ago — about which side of the track we did something on.”

He was referring to the railroad line through downtown that bisects the Edgecombe County and Nash County sides of the city.

“Well, anytime you hear crime and Rocky Mount from the outside, nobody asks what side of the county line it was on,” he said. “They just say, ‘Rocky Mount.’”

At the same time, he said that when one rides through Rocky Mount and looks at the city, one can look at one side of the track and see funding has been held back from there for years.

He was referring to the Edgecombe County side of the railroad line.

“It’s time to take that other side of the county line and make it look like the other side of the county line, so we can say, ‘We have a beautiful city, we have a beautiful downtown, we have beautiful neighborhoods — and people are living better and jobs have come here and housing is better,’” he said.

The city’s 2021 retreat lasted roughly 2½ days and was held at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville. The council majority wanted to learn how the Buncombe County seat has been addressing housing issues.

Jones has served on the Central City Revitalization Panel since 2006 and owns buildings downtown.

Jones also emphasized Friday to municipal officials what he sees as a need to begin trusting one another and talking and dealing from a whole different perspective. He said that is because he believes this is not about differences among each other.

“It’s about, ‘What can we do to make this city better, look better, live better — and the children that grow up in this city grow up better?’” he said.

Earlier Friday, the council heard an update from Rocky Mount Downtown Development Manager Kevin Harris about revitalizing downtown, specifically having unique housing options attractive to professionals and affordable to senior citizens and the workforce.

Harris said there will be 125 housing units downtown and that the municipality is aspiring to have 500 people living downtown within the next five years.

He showed the council images of vacant structures and referred to open lots in the context of there being vast amounts of opportunities for future residences downtown.

He then told the council of two proposed financial incentives to achieve this.

One is the Residential Production Grant, which would incentivize building re-usage or new construction to develop residential units downtown.

Harris said funds from such a program could be used for construction costs and installing fire suppression systems and installing fixtures resulting in the availability of condominiums and loft apartments.

Harris said the other is the Real Estate Development and Investment Grant, which he also called the REDI Program.

Harris said such a program would offer tiers of funding to developers to help them with the costs of restoring older buildings and also with new construction amid middle-sized or large projects. He said the program would not only apply to downtown but also along connecting corridors.

The way the REDI Program would work, as an example, is a developer facing a maximum $2 million project cost could receive $500,000 or funding for 25 percent of the project investment, whichever is less.

In turn, at least 20 full-time jobs would need to be created and the $500,000 would be recouped in five years.

City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney said the council will see funding for the REDI Program as part of her recommendations for the proposed fiscal year 2021-22 municipal budget.

Councilman Lige Daughtridge made clear that while he believes the REDI Program certainly could spur some development, he has questions in the context of his concerns and themes in connection with the March 8 council meeting. During that meeting, Daughtridge unsuccessfully requested city contracts and grants be audited as a standard operating procedure.

Of the REDI Program, Daughtridge on Friday said, “I do think it would be something worthy of consideration, but I want a whole lot more detail.”

After a discussion between Daughtridge and Harris about further specifics of the REDI Program, Councilman Andre Knight asked Daughtridge whether he is suggesting that grants provided by the municipality so far are not being used correctly.

Daughtridge referred to Small-Toney’s remark during the Feb. 8 council meeting about the lack of personnel to monitor larger projects and this subsequently involving good faith both ways.

Daughtridge told Knight he means exactly what he is saying in making clear that if the city is putting forth municipal funds, then an inspection is necessary because the municipality is the fiduciary of that money.

“We need to inspect it to make sure what we’re expecting is actually coming to fruition,” Daughtridge said.

Knight said he walks downtown daily and can see a transformation from scenes of boarded-up buildings to ones with windows and glassed-in storefronts and scenes of artwork to go along with the streetscape in place.

Moments later in the discussion, Small-Toney said she wanted to clear the air, particularly if there is any thought in the meeting room or publicly that the city just haphazardly rolls out money.

Small-Toney’s previous remark on Feb. 8 was in reference to the council on Dec. 14 approving a large contract with Barnhill Contracting to resurface roads and streets.

Small-Toney on Friday made clear the municipal staff follows certain rules and regulations to ensure the city has followed the financial protocol as far as the performance of the contract.

“Yes, there are staff people who go out and monitor things, but we cannot afford to put somebody on every contract and have them there each time the work is done,” she said.

Regarding the REDI Program, Small-Toney said, “Now, I have no problem presenting to this council exactly what that cost will look like, but I can assure you it’s going to be a very large number.”

Small-Toney said the council then can deliberate whether to include that in the fiscal year 2021-22 budget.

Councilwoman Chris Miller, who on Friday was participating via teleconferencing, said an audit is not an examination of each and every detail of each and every contract, but rather is a sampling process.

“There are statistics involved around that,” Miller said. “It depends on the number of transactions you’re auditing and so forth.

“That is readily available information,” she added.

Whitakers man pleads guilty to two robberies

A Whitakers man was sentenced last week to serve 78 months in prison for his part in a bank robbery and the robbery of a Family Dollar Store that occurred in towns in eastern North Carolina.

According to court documents, Christopher Bryan Shingleton, 43, pled guilty to robbing the First Bank in Morehead City on June 6, 2019, and robbing the Family Dollar in Havelock on June 15, 2019, a statement released Thursday from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina said.

Though Shingleton was indicted on four counts, he pled guilty to two counts and was sentenced to 78 months on each count to be served concurrently.

Media accounts published at the time of his arrest identified Shingleton as a Swansboro resident. However, a spokesman for the U.S. District Court confirmed that he had a Whitakers address at the time of the indictment.

During both robberies, Shingleton threatened employees by saying he had a gun and demanded money.

According to state law, a person can be charged with armed robbery if they have a weapon in their possession or even if they threaten the use of any firearm or other dangerous weapon.

As part of the sentence, Shingleton also agreed to pay restitution for two other robberies that he had committed in Jacksonville and Greenville. Further research into court documents revealed that he is required to pay $3,453 to First Bank, $1,244 to First Citizens Bank and $213.88 to two separate Family Dollar Stores.

The court also recommended that Shingleton be placed in the “most intensive drug treatment” and undergo a mental health assessment and treatment as part of his sentence.

New legislation would grant more power to state audit investigations

A new bill introduced this month in the General Assembly is designed to give more teeth to audits of local governments such as the audit that was released in 2020 about the City of Rocky Mount.

The primary sponsors of SB 473, also known as the “Enhance Local Government Transparency Bill,” include state Sens. Lisa Stone Barnes, R-Nash; Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico; and Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson.

“Government transparency is critical to the success of our democracy. My goal in creating this bill is to strengthen the public’s trust and preserve the integrity of local government while avoiding wrongdoing and conflicts of interest,” Barnes said Friday in an interview.

The bill, in its current draft form, has four main purposes.

The first is to provide stronger consequences for city and county governments investigated by the state auditor’s office. If the bill is passed, the state auditor would be required to notify the Local Government Commission of negative findings about local governments. At that point, the LGC may decide to choose a certified public accountant who will conduct local audits for the next three years and report all findings to the LGC.

“We sought input from the state auditor and the Local Government Commission when writing this bill,” Barnes said. “Currently, the state auditor just makes recommendations. This bill would be an attempt to give more teeth to the investigations that the state auditor is spending so much money to produce.”

The second purpose of the bill would be to require garnishment of money owed in certain circumstances when city or county officials misuse funds or use their influence to avoid money owed.

“In addition to any other enforcement available, the finance officer of the city shall garnish compensation paid under G.S. 160A-64 to any mayor or council member to collect any unpaid monies due to the city for city services until such debt is paid in full using the procedure for attachment and garnishment set forth in G.S. 105-368 as if unpaid monies due to the city for city services were delinquent taxes and that finance officer were the tax collector,” the bill states in its current form.

The third effect of the bill would be to criminalize the misuse of an elected office for personal financial gain.

“No elected officer shall solicit or receive personal financial gain from the political subdivision for which that elected officer serves by means of intimidation, undue influence or misuse of the employees of that political subdivision,” the bill states.

Violation of this statute would be a Class H felony under the current form of the bill. In North Carolina, this is the same category as first-degree forgery and can carry a prison sentence of four to 25 months.

The fourth purpose of the bill is to prevent self-dealing by local government officials who also serve on boards of nonprofit agencies. The section would more closely define and govern situations where a public official serves, for instance, as a city council member and on the board of the OIC.

In an interview Friday, Barnes said she was motivated to sponsor the bill in the aftermath of the publication of the state auditor’s report on the City of Rocky Mount in May 2020.

“At that time, I was serving in the state House of Representatives. I had a lot of people calling me asking me to do something about the situation,” Barnes said.

Barnes said she is sympathetic to such concerns.

“There was a definite outcry from constituents demanding action after the release of the auditor’s findings last year. The report itself indicated there were 213 complaints received through the hotline. It is very alarming when government officials receive blatant preferential treatment and fail to follow proper procedures, wasting taxpayer money and public resources,” Barnes told the Telegram.

According to the summary of that report posted by the State Auditor’s Office, the results of the investigation revealed that, among several other infractions, “multiple City of Rocky Mount officials prevented the Business Services Center from adhering to its utility customer service policy resulting in a $47,704 write-off of a city council member’s utility account.”

That council member was subsequently identified as Councilman Andre Knight.

The audit of the city also revealed the “City of Rocky Mount Downtown Development Managers failed to follow program guidelines for the downtown roof replacement and building assistance programs resulting in uncollected loan payments of $32,452 and inappropriately awarded grants totaling $28,000. The City of Rocky Mount Engineering Division violated the City’s Code of Ordinances by not collecting on a letter of credit as required after two years resulting in potential costs of $31,000 to complete subdivision improvements. The City Manager failed to comply with the City of Rocky Mount’s travel policy resulting in $1,575 in unallowable travel expenses” and “The City of Rocky Mount failed to designate an American with Disabilities Act coordinator since 2010 as required by federal law.”

While much of the law can apply to situations presented in the Rocky Mount audit, it will apply to other situations across the state that may affect city and county governments in the future. Some of the measures in the bill also are retroactive to audit situations since July 2018.

“Rocky Mount is not the only place that has been audited and had negative findings,” Barnes said.

According to the state auditor’s website, investigations of several other local government entities have uncovered evidence of financial misdealing by government officials or employees.

In May 2019, the state auditor’s investigation of the Town of Robbinsville determined that town officials and employees spent more than $34,000 on credit card purchases and more than $30,000 on fuel purchases without adequate documentation to support a business purpose. In addition, town officials and employees received over $15,900 in fringe benefits that were excluded from income, according to the state auditor’s summary.

In December 2019, an investigation of the Town of Manteo showed that a town commissioner derived a direct benefit of $12,500 from a contract related to the Doughs Creek Canal dredging project.

In April 2020, an investigation by the State Auditor’s Office into Greene County showed that county employees spent $95,660 on credit card transactions without adequate supporting documentation or proper review and approval.

No other state auditor investigations concerning city or county governments have been published since the Rocky Mount report in May 2020.

The bill is in the early stages of passage and is in its draft form. On Monday, it passed the first reading and was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate.

Barnes said she hopes the bill is passed.

“We don’t have anything in North Carolina now that really addressees these issues,” Barnes said. “I hope this will be the beginning of a local government ethics act like many other states have.”

She said she feels the issue is important because such issues affect the relationship between local residents and government.

“When people don’t trust their government, they either get angry or they get apathic and refuse to participate in elections. We need to try to preserve the integrity and increase the accountability of these local government institutions so that citizens will trust the people who are governing them,” Barnes said.

As she seeks to address issues of transparency and ethics in government, Barnes said she invites comment from the community.

“I welcome feedback from the public on their level of confidence in their local government and whether or not they support this type of legislation,” she said.

The full text of the bill can be viewed at https://webservices.ncleg.gov/ViewBillDocument/2021/2293/0/DRS35210-ST-20.

Teen found shot along West Raleigh Boulevard

Authorities are trying to find the person or persons responsible for a teen having been found shot late Thursday afternoon in the Cedar Brook area of the city.

Officers about 5 p.m. responded to the 1100 block of West Raleigh Boulevard and found an 18-year-old male who had been wounded in one of his arms, police Cpl. Ricky Jackson said in a brief news release.

Emergency medical personnel transported the teen to Nash UNC Health Care for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries, Jackson said.

Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office radio traffic subsequently advised there had been a shooting with an injury at the Princess Market, which is in the 1100 block of West Raleigh.

The radio traffic included a report about a vehicle possibly with two Black men aboard, possibly with a firearm and with one of the two possibly dressed as a woman.

The radio traffic advised deputies that the direction of the travel was unknown but that if the two were located then to stop and hold them for police.