House passes ethics legislation

Lawmakers and candidates would be banned from pocketing campaign funds

Staff WritersJuly 14, 2006 

  • 527s reporting: A bill that would tighten reporting requirements for issue-oriented political groups known as "527s" cleared the legislature. It would require the groups to identify all contributors who give more than $1,000 and report aggregate expenditures of more than $10,000 on election communications such as fliers or television ads. It also lowers the threshold for reporting mass mailings or phone-bank calls from 5,000 to 2,500 for each legislative race within a 30-day period.

    Lawmakers sought the measures after a 527 founded by former Rep. Art Pope of Raleigh targeted several legislative districts with mass mailings during the recent Republican primary, helping to defeat a longtime foe, Rep. Richard Morgan of Moore County and one of his allies.

    Ethics bill: Senators got to work on an ethics and lobbying bill -- the subjects are combined into one measure -- but took no action.

    A Senate committee discussed ethics concerns but did not get to the lobbying section of the bill.

    One aspect of the bill getting attention was that it would not ban lobbyists from making campaign contributions. it would require disclosure of contributions and of efforts to collect contributions from others.

State lawmakers on Thursday passed the first significant measure this year to reform the way state officials operate in North Carolina. But several other major reforms that legislative leaders have labeled priorities have yet to clear the legislature as it nears the end of the session.

The House voted 111-2 to prohibit state and local candidates and elected officials from using their campaign funds for cars, trips and other personal uses. The Senate had previously passed the ban, so all that's needed to make it law is Gov. Mike Easley's signature.

"It's certainly significant," said Rob Thompson, of the N.C. Public Interest Research Group. "If you are going to have regular citizens involved in the political process, they have to be confident that their contributions aren't going into the personal bank accounts of politicians."

The ban would take effect Oct. 1, so if candidates for this year's election choose to pocket campaign funds, they would have to report it before Election Day.

The ban got its start after lawmakers learned that Rep. Michael Decker, a Forsyth County Republican, had used campaign money in 2003 on a car and a trip to Florida to pick it up. Much of that money came from supporters of House Speaker Jim Black, whom Decker helped keep in power by switching parties before the start of the 2003 session.

Last year, Decker pocketed a $4,000 campaign contribution from Black and closed the account. Decker had lost re-election in the 2004 primary.

Decker is under investigation by state authorities after the State Board of Elections said he had committed several election law violations, including failing to account for $3,400 in donations. Evidence at hearings by the elections board indicated that Decker also cashed those checks. A federal grand jury is also looking into the campaign activity.

Decker is not the only lawmaker to cash in campaign money. A News & Observer review last year found other lawmakers who used their campaign funds for personal expenses such as a new car or computer, moved the money into personal accounts or gave it to family members.

A majority of states have similar bans. The North Carolina legislation would allow candidates and elected officials to donate unspent campaign money to charities, political parties or other candidates' campaigns. They could also return the donations to the contributor or use them to pay election penalties.

Under current North Carolina law, candidates are free to spend campaign funds however they wish as long as they disclose the spending.

Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, was the first to call for a ban and filed a bill to that effect last year.

But momentum didn't build for a ban until Black came under scrutiny for several controversies that erupted in the latter half of 2005. They included his role in helping pass a new state lottery, while his unpaid political director wined and dined lawmakers as an undisclosed consultant for a major lottery vendor.

That created the drive to tighten government ethics and lobbying laws, but those measures continue to sit in a Senate committee.

Reform advocates have sought changes that would ban lobbyists from campaign fundraising and give an independent ethics board the authority to investigate complaints against lawmakers.

Easley entered the fray Thursday, a day after the man he appointed chairman of the N.C. Board of Ethics, former Superior Court Judge Robert Farmer, criticized the lobbying and ethics legislation still under consideration as "pretend ethics."

One of Easley's top advisers, Franklin Freeman, said the governor is lobbying lawmakers to create an independent ethics board that investigates complaints against lawmakers as well as the executive branch and some judicial officials.

"It serves no useful purpose if it's not meaningful," Easley told reporters Thursday.

Staff writer Dan Kane can be reached at 829-4861 or dkane@newsobserver.com.

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