Perdue falls short on ethics vow

Tripping point for dismissal goes from not passing 'the sniff test' to felony indictment.

Staff WriterMarch 28, 2010 

  • J . Andrew Curliss has covered state and local politics for The News & Observer for the past decade. He was among six finalists for the 2010 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for "Executive Privilege: The Perks of Power," a series of articles about the legal and ethical problems surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley and top administrators at N.C. State University.

  • Q: You have said let the sun shine in...

    Perdue: I'm going to open it right up. There's going to be total transparency, total reform of government, on-site, hands-on accountability. It's going to change the way business is done in Raleigh and across this state.

    Q: When you talk about accountability and transparency, are you saying that you are going to be different from Gov. Easley?

    Perdue: I intend to hold everybody in this administration to the highest possible ethical conduct. I'm going to start with myself. And we're going to be proud of this new North Carolina.

    Q: How do you appoint people to all the boards and commissions without crossing over with fundraisers and people who are supposed to...

    Perdue: I'm not saying that won't happen. I don't know what will happen. But I promise you what will happen. There is an ethics code that has been set up by the Ethics Commission of North Carolina. And I'm going to have a super code of my own - where they sign a pledge to me, anybody that serves, anybody that's appointed to any kind of office in North Carolina, understands clearly that their code is different than it's ever been before. That I'm not going to put up with any kind of mess. And that if there is the least whiff, hint, of something that doesn't pass the sniff test, then they need to resign. ... We're going to clean it up.

    Gov. Bev Perdue

    NOW

    "If I have an appointee who refuses to cooperate with any kind of official body, refuses to answer questions, we will dismiss them. Anybody that's indicted will be dismissed immediately, before a formal trial happens."

On the night she was elected governor, Bev Perdue vowed to reporters that she would "hold everybody in this administration to the highest possible ethical conduct."

The consequences would be serious, she said, if important concerns arose about appointees - the people who oversee the state's university system, its transportation networks, its beauty salons, even the auctioneers who sell family treasures.

"I promise you what will happen," the Democrat said that night. "I'm not going to put up with any kind of mess. And that if there is the least whiff, hint, of something that doesn't pass the sniff test, then they need to resign. ... We're going to clean it up."

It's a promise Perdue hasn't kept.

Over the past year, Perdue took no public action against a number of prominent appointees across state government as controversies developed around them. Some, such as developer Randy Allen and coastal resources commissioner Bob Wilson, remain in their positions. Others, such as Ruffin Poole and McQueen Campbell, resigned amid scrutiny and public pressure from outsiders.

An example not as well known: Records show a Perdue appointee to the auctioneer licensing board - a man who had piloted Perdue three times during her 2008 campaign - has been sanctioned in the past.

The appointee, auctioneer Lloyd "Mickey" Meekins Jr. of Lumberton, was disciplined by the auctioneer board in 2002 after being cited for "substantial evidence" of "bad faith or dishonesty" in the sale of a truck. Before that, in the 1980s, he was charged with multiple felonies related to vote-buying that federal authorities said corrupted two elections in South Carolina. Meekins pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

Meekins said his auction infraction is the equivalent of running a red light, and it's the only blemish out of millions of dollars in auction sales over four decades. Also, he said it's good for people with different experiences to serve.

Perdue said in an interview she was unaware of Meekins' past but would check on it.

A spokeswoman, Chrissy Pearson, later said there was a distinction in that the federal case against Meekins ended up with misdemeanor convictions, not felonies. She said people who have been disciplined by boards can still serve on them.

That position underscores the stand Perdue has now formally adopted, one that is much different from her election-night pledge.

Appointees should resign, the governor now says, if they are indicted on felony charges or if they fail to cooperate in any investigation. She said she can't be a judge and jury who removes people over suspicions or accusations. She adopted the standard in an executive order she issued late last year.

"My litmus test is the same for everybody," Perdue told reporters in December. "Somebody refuses to answer, he or she gets fired. An indictment is an automatic dismissal. ... You have to have some kind of marker as to why you do things."

The attention on appointees comes as Perdue says a priority of this year is to "set government straight."

She is preparing to lead efforts that would enact reforms to bring more confidence to state government, including forcing more disclosures about campaign activities and dealings of appointees to major boards and commissions.

Critics wonder whether Perdue will be able to follow through, saying she has had ample opportunity to take action on appointees but hasn't.

"She wasn't in there cleaning up the mess," said state Republican Party chairman Tom Fetzer. "She has allowed it to continue to fester. It's been talk, not action."

Fetzer said that Perdue's standard for removal now is about as minimal as it could get and that North Carolinians expect better.

Public silence

The past year has seen a wide range of troubles that touched on appointees, and in which Perdue did not speak out.

Some examples:

Ruffin Poole. Poole refused to testify at a state elections board hearing in October. But he kept his seat on the powerful state board that oversees distribution of millions in national tobacco settlement money until a Democratic consultant and campaign finance watchdog, Joe Sinsheimer of Raleigh, wrote a letter to Perdue saying it was "disgraceful" that Poole was still on the board.

Poole eventually resigned weeks later, just before Perdue first made public her position that people who fail to cooperate in an inquiry should be dismissed. Poole was later indicted on federal corruption charges.

McQueen Campbell. Campbell, a real estate broker and private pilot, was a trustee at N.C. State University involved in securing a job for former first lady Mary Easley.

As information came out last year about his role in the hiring, and in his piloting of former Gov. Mike Easley for free, it was UNC system President Erskine Bowles who called for Campbell to resign at NCSU, even though Bowles had no authority because Campbell was a gubernatorial appointee. Campbell stepped down a day later.

After Campbell resigned, Perdue said she thought it was best.

Randy Allen, a member of the Wildlife Resources Commission, which oversees hunting, fishing and other outdoors concerns. Allen was appointed to his seat by Easley in the same month Easley reserved a lot with Allen for a coastal lot at Allen's Cannonsgate development on Bogue Sound in Carteret County. Easley got the lot at a discount of $137,000, records show.

The state's Wildlife Federation has called for an inquiry into whether seats were sold in exchange for major campaign contributions and for Perdue to "immediately demand the resignations of any individuals who were appointed under such inappropriate circumstances." Allen's term expires in April 2011.

Bob Wilson, a member of the state's Coastal Resources Commission and owner of a company that works on coastal developments, had a contract to work on the marina at Cannonsgate. At one point, he helped quell concerns by environmental regulators about the marina dredging, according to the Poole indictment. At the same time, Wilson was also trying to secure some lots in the project, the indictment says.

The indictment says that an employee of Wilson's wrote about the benefits of Wilson's state appointment in dealing with regulators, saying: "It didn't hurt that [Wilson] sits on the board of commissioners for CAMA" (the Coastal Area Management Act). Wilson has not responded to calls seeking comment.

Republicans have called for him to quit. Wilson's term is up in June.

Lanny Wilson, a Wilmington developer and investor who is unrelated to Bob Wilson. Lanny Wilson, a major fundraiser for Easley and Perdue, testified in a hearing in October that he made illegal campaign contributions for Easley. In the Poole indictment, federal authorities make clear that Wilson gave money and gifts to Easley's right-hand man to build a close relationship, secure access and help his real estate interests.

But amid calls for him to go, Perdue did not seek Wilson's removal from the state Board of Transportation after he had testified publicly.

Months later, Wilson resigned on his own on the same day the indictment was issued against Poole. But Wilson kept his seat on the state's turnpike authority. After Republicans made that an issue, Wilson gave up that seat as well.

Nick Garrett, a Wilmington builder who was close to Easley and Lanny Wilson. At the elections hearing last year, Garrett also testified to making contributions that were illegal and has said that he raised other campaign money while pressing for a new state program that would quicken permits.

He sits on the state Architecture Board in a slot that has no end date; he serves "at the pleasure of the governor."

In an interview, Perdue said she has worked "very quietly and behind the scenes" in some instances to seek the removal of appointees, including, she said, in her eight years as lieutenant governor.

But Perdue would not name any people she had suggested should resign, or instances in which she took action on individuals, calling them all confidential.

She said she has made big strides in improving government in a range of areas and intends to continue pushing for changes when lawmakers return to Raleigh in May.

Auctioneer's case

The N.C. Auctioneer Licensing Board is a relatively obscure state agency, but it's an example of Perdue's failure to follow through on her talk about high standards, Sinsheimer said.

"These boards are regulatory and need to be made up of people with the highest standards," Sinsheimer said. "She has not distanced herself from the good ol' boy, pay-to-play politics."

Easley appointed Meekins to the auction board in 2006 after Meekins sought help from then-state Sen. David Weinstein and McQueen Campbell, whom he knew through their mutual love of airplanes.

In the summer of 2008, Meekins' wife gave Perdue a $4,000 campaign donation; a few months later, Meekins flew the future governor in the final weeks of the campaign to Charlotte, Concord and Ahoskie, according to records and Perdue's campaign. That fall, Easley appointed two new members to the five-person board - another auctioneer, Keith Pierce, who also had been disciplined previously, and a bail bondswoman from Campbell's hometown.

Before Perdue took office, Meekins, who was the board's chairman, and a majority of the board fired executive director Bob Hamilton and the investigator who had led the probes against Meekins and Pierce.

Hamilton said that he was given no reason for his dismissal and that he thinks it was in retaliation for bringing the disciplinary cases. Meekins said he wouldn't discuss the past because he is focused on what's ahead for auctioneers. Pierce said that no individual board member can fire anyone and that he had heard of unhappiness from auctioneers.

Perdue's top officials are aware of what had transpired, according to a memo provided to her office and interviews with her staff, including that two of the board members had previously been disciplined.

Then, Meekins' term was finished last fall. On Oct. 5, Perdue re-appointed him to a new three-year term.

Hamilton, who was director for 10 years, said he at first wondered why Perdue reappointed Meekins.

"It was a surprise," Hamilton said. "But he had flown her, and all that. I guess it's more of the same."

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

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