Years ago, the State Board of Elections enjoyed a public image of a humdrum vote counter and ballot inspector. But in the past decade, the board has taken the role of dogged investigator that has helped put crooked politicians behind bars.
There's no telling what, if anything, will emerge from the hearing into the conduct of former Gov. Mike Easley, which began today. (You can watch the hearings live and get updated reports on their progress.)
But one thing is certain, according to political consultant Joe Sinsheimer: The public is guaranteed to get a look behind the curtain at how politics works.
"In every other part of state government, ethics issues are handled in secret," Sinsheimer said. "The State Board of Elections demands people testify publicly, under oath, and under penalty of perjury."
Sinsheimer, who played a role in exposing misconduct by former House Speaker Jim Black, said the elections board has been far more effective and open than other bodies that police public officials, such as the state Ethics Commission.
At times, the public hearings have been dramatic events, producing these bombshells:
A carnival owner passed a shoebox with $22,000 in unreported cash to former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps.
Black denied under oath taking part in a scheme where fellow optometrists wrote thousand-dollar checks and left the payee and date fields blank. Black came clean when confronted with a check that bore his writing and was made out to a political ally.
In 1998, the state board had difficulties with witnesses after issuing subpoenas concerning allegations that House Republicans had retaliated against the state's industrial hog farmers for not raising enough money for the Republican Party. "Kiss my [expletive], I'm not coming," was the message sent by poultry magnate Marvin Johnson. The board directed the State Bureau of Investigation to arrest Johnson and another witness if they didn't cooperate. Both soon showed up to testify.
The hearings have had more lasting impact than courtroom drama, according to Bob Hall, the director of the liberal-leaning Democracy NC.
"They have shed light on problems, they've exposed wrongdoing, and they've documented problems in a way that not only points to specific wrongdoing, but also to policies that should be changed," said Hall.
"The follow-up to their hearings has led to changes in policy, changes in the law, and prosecutions."
The elections board referred Phipps and Black, both Democrats, to federal prosecutors. Both went to federal prison and pleaded guilty to state charges as well. The Phipps investigation netted eight other convictions, and the Black probe, five.
Elections chairman Larry Leake said his goal in all the board's fact-finding hearings, like today's, is the same.
"It's that the truth will come out," he said.
Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed to this report.
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