Audit finds only procedural violations in Perdue ethics case

Staff WriterAugust 19, 2009 

— The state auditor and the State Ethics Commission have ended a battle stemming from an investigation into the handling of then-Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue's ethics files.

A state audit released Monday found that officials with the State Ethics Commission had not intentionally destroyed evidence. But the audit did find that commission staff had not followed procedures in making the ethics statements available to the public.

The case stems from a visit that Perdue's legal counsel, Will Polk, made in October 2007 to review her ethics statements, which are an accounting of her financial interests. The statements are intended to help officials avoid conflicts of interest.

Polk had been allowed to review the files behind closed doors. An aide, Amanda Thaxton, had noted in an electronic log that this was not the commission's policy; a staff e-mail directive had told them not to let members of the public review ethics files without staff supervision.

Thaxton filed a complaint to the Auditor's Office, which then initiated an investigation. She was later fired by the commission and has since filed a whistle-blower's lawsuit that is pending in state court. The commission has denied that she was fired in retaliation.

The audit did not address Thaxton's whistle-blower claim.

Copies of the log showed that her entry had been removed. But the auditor's report released Monday found that the change was made before the commission was notified of the auditor's investigation, so there was no evidence of tampering. The report also found that the electronic log was not secure and that successive changes erased previous versions.

In a response, commission Executive Director Perry Newson disputed whether the e-mail directive pertained to cases in which public officials came in to review their filings or sent in representatives to do so.

Dennis Patterson, a spokesman for the auditor's office, said the commission needs to supervise those reviewing the records to prevent them from being altered. The records are central to ethics investigations, which can result in criminal charges if a public official used the statements to deceive or mislead the public.

Newson said the electronic log has been made secure, but he questioned the need to develop a system that would track every instance in which the log was changed.

The commission had filed suit last year to prevent the Auditor's Office, which was then led by Les Merritt, from obtaining commission records. Patterson said the suit was settled in April with the commission agreeing to provide the records.

By then, voters had elected a new state auditor, Beth Wood.

dkane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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