Ethics law updates in the works

Easley revelations spur measures to restrict lobbying and require greater openness.

Staff WriterJuly 5, 2009 

  • Several reform-oriented bills are working their way through the legislature, some getting attention because of the controversy surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley. A glance at a few:

    DISCLOSURE BY APPOINTEES: Would require campaign fundraising disclosures by people appointed to 14 top state boards and commissions, such as the Board of Transportation, the Wildlife Resources Commission and the Utilities Commission. It also would cover appointees to the governor's Cabinet and judges on the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, and Superior and District Courts across the state.

    STATUS: In the Senate, after passing the House. (HB 944)

    OPEN GOVERNMENT: Would create an open government unit of the Department of Justice, establish a fee for mediation by the open government unit, and provide that the successful plaintiff in a public records dispute is entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees.

    STATUS: In the House, expected to be heard this week. (HB 1134)

    PAY TO PLAY REGULATION: Would prohibit campaign contributions from vendors that have entered into a contract worth more than $25,000.

    STATUS: In the Senate after passing the House. (HB 961)

    LOCAL GOVERNMENT ETHICS: Would require all cities, counties, local boards of education, unified governments, sanitary districts and consolidated city-counties to adopt a code of ethics for the governing board, and to require the members of those governing boards to receive education on ethics laws applicable to local government officials.

    STATUS: Passed the House and on the calendar in the Senate for Wednesday. (HB 1452)

    EXECUTIVE BRANCH REVOLVING DOOR: Would prohibit certain executive branch employees from registering as a lobbyist for six months after leaving employment with the state.

    STATUS: Passed the House and is in the Senate. (HB 1136)

    PUBLIC MUNICIPAL CAMPAIGNS: Would establish a test program for public financing of municipal election campaigns.

    STATUS: Passed the House, and now in the Senate. (HB 120)

    LOOK THEM UP

    Follow the bills online at www .ncleg .net using the bill look-up feature. Some bills will not stand alone going forward but are expected to be included in other pieces of active legislation.

The stream of revelations surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley and his family highlights the need for more changes in ethics and lobbying laws, according to a broad coalition now at work at the General Assembly.

Stories about the Easleys and the resulting state and federal criminal investigations have shown weaknesses in the law: shrouded activities of major gubernatorial appointees, allowing public officials to avoid ethics disclosures in their final year in office, and providing little penalty for officials who do not comply with public records laws.

"More sunshine and brighter lines would have prevented some of these activities we are reading about," said Jane Pinsky, who leads a bipartisan group of more than 50 members known as the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

Influential state Sen. Tony Rand, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate and a longtime ally of the Easleys, said in an interview that there is a clear need for more openness and that he would actively support many reform ideas.

"There's an appetite for transparency in things," Rand said.

Easley has been targeted by state and federal investigators who have sought information and records about the job the former governor helped create for his wife at N.C. State University, his family's use of vehicles owned by dealers friendly to him, free flights he took on corporate jets, and a marina project in his hometown of Southport.

Easley, for example, didn't disclose some trips he took during his last year in office. And key appointees did not disclose flying him for free. The State Board of Elections has opened a criminal inquiry into the Easley campaign's activities.

Lawmakers appear ready to take action, agreeing to consider changes just three years after imposing stricter guidelines on themselves after the scandal surrounding former House Speaker Jim Black, who is imprisoned on corruption charges.

With the unresolved state budget dominating attention, it is not clear what changes might occur.

House and Senate leaders appear to be squarely behind one bill that would require more openness about the political activities of appointees to the state's major boards and commissions, as well as the governor's Cabinet secretaries and top judicial posts.

Another provision with traction aims to prevent "pay to play," prohibiting campaign donations from state vendors or contractors while a contract is in place.

Other government reform ideas in the works center on forcing more disclosure of travel by public officials no matter who is paying, more disclosure of corporate board positions, and setting a broader example by pushing ethics reforms across North Carolina to officials at the county, city and local levels.

Ultimate passage of any ideas will take work until the last moments of the legislative session, reform advocates and several lawmakers said.

'Recommendations will come'

One bill that was heard in a House committee Wednesday would create a unit within state government to help mediate public records disputes -- an effort led by Wake County Democratic Rep. Deborah Ross, designed to help average folks navigate what can be a difficult process. It also would help people and news organizations collect lawyers' fees from government agencies that release public records after lawsuits.

Some of the key documents in the Easley case were not at first released by NCSU, though they are clearly public records. A costly lawsuit might have led to their release. But it was requests made by federal investigators instead that compelled NCSU to produce them -- and the documents then were released to the public.

"The fact remains that when we ask for public records, we often don't get them," said Mark Prak, who represented the N.C. Association of Broadcasters and N.C. Press Association in support of the bill.

Cities and counties are not in favor of the public records changes, saying they would lead to slower and more cumbersome compliance with records requests. Also, lawmakers are reluctant to make quick changes based on one situation.

Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville who is co-chairman of the legislature's ethics panel, said ongoing state and federal investigations surrounding Easley should run their course before legislators take up some of the issues.

"Recommendations will come to us out of this; I expect that to occur," Glazier said. "But it is a little too early to react to all of that legislatively."

Glazier also worries that more laws will only deter good people from serving.

"Ethics and enforcement of ethics rules is as much in the culture of an institution and in the hearts of its people who are in it than it is about legislation itself," Glazier said. "There is simply no way to cover in a workable ethics code every conceivable scenario in which someone who wants to violate or skirt the rules -- to stop them from doing so."

Ultimately, Gov. Beverly Perdue would have to sign off on any changes. She has generally signaled support, after running for the governor's office on a platform last year of seeking more openness and transparency in state government.

acurliss@newsobserver .com or 919-829-4840

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