Charles Thomas, N.C. speaker's top aide, linked to lobbyist

Evidence of relationship prompts Tillis’ chief to quit

acurliss@newsobserver.comApril 27, 2012 

  • Charles Thomas Age: 40 Job: Chief of staff to House Speaker Thom Tillis Salary: $150,000 Hometown: Asheville Education: Wofford College Public service: Served in the U.S. Army for 10 years. Served one term in General Assembly, 2007-08. Did not seek re-election. Business background: Financial adviser and entrepreneur, including ownership in aviation-related businesses. Source: Office of House Speaker Thom Tillis

— The chief of staff to state House Speaker Thom Tillis has been in an intimate relationship with a lobbyist for the North Carolina Home Builders Association, a special interest group that often seeks help from the legislature and provides money to political campaigns across the state.

Charles Thomas, Tillis’ chief of staff, resigned Thursday evening after being questioned about the relationship by The News & Observer.

Tillis issued a brief statement to The N&O, saying Thomas “verbally offered his resignation. I have accepted it this evening.”

Photographs, video and reports of eyewitness accounts show Thomas sharing intimate moments in public with Jessica B. Hayes, who records show has been a lobbyist for the home builders since 2008.

State ethics laws seek to ensure that public officials exercise their authority “free from impropriety, threats, favoritism, and undue influence.” Lobbying laws regulate the point at which a lobbyist intersects with a public official, mostly aimed at prohibiting gift giving.

But such laws do not specifically address the type of romantic relationship that has developed between Thomas and Hayes. In general, though, public officials are required to identify actual or possible conflicts of interest between their personal and public lives and take steps to resolve them, such as making public disclosures or recusing themselves from being involved in matters.

Thomas is a former one-term lawmaker from Asheville who wielded clout in Raleigh. As the top aide to Tillis, Thomas influenced lawmaking and had been credited with writing at least one bill. He ran Tillis’ office in Raleigh, could hire and fire personnel, and helped set the agenda for each session.

Thomas, 40, and Tillis, both Republicans, were seatmates on the floor of the House when both served as lawmakers in 2007 and 2008. They share an apartment in Raleigh.

Thomas said in an interview Thursday that he understood the public – and other groups that might lobby in competition with the home builders – would want to know about his relationship with the lobbyist.

Asked if he thought it was appropriate, given his position, he paused at length.

“It depends on where you sit,” Thomas said.

“Is it unlawful? I would say absolutely not,” he said. “It depends on a person’s life experiences and what’s happened to them ... Everyone comes with a different lens through which they view and make judgment of others.”

Denies discussing legislation

Thomas stressed that he had not discussed legislation with Hayes. He also said he has never “moved, influenced, changed or even tried” to affect legislation for the home builders association. But he also acknowledged that he has met with association officials, saying he couldn’t recall specifics.

Thomas said that Tillis did not know of the relationship and he would call the speaker after the interview ended.

“Clearly, I’m probably out of a job,” Thomas said. “I have no desire to let something else become a distraction from running the place.” Four hours later, he had resigned.

Hayes, 32, could not be reached by phone or in person at her office.

Both Thomas and Hayes are married to other people, according to public records.

The two had been seen kissing and embracing in public places multiple times, according to investigators with Macks Pickett Investigative Services, a private investigative agency in Raleigh. The agency’s investigators worked on behalf of an unidentified client.

This month, the two were spotted kissing at Tyler’s Restaurant & Taproom in downtown Raleigh. Last month, they shared a bottle of wine at dinner and then drinks at a nearby bar on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh before returning to the apartment shared by Thomas and Tillis, according to video and investigators’ notes. They held hands and were observed kissing in the C. Grace Bar, according to photos and other documentation.

Thomas said he believes someone is out to get him, probably connected to a local issue in his hometown of Asheville, in what the former Army soldier called an “assassination.”

“This is a new low, someone probably paid to follow a state employee,” he said. “It’s new territory.”

Is it allowed?

Lobbying in the legislature is tightly regulated under state law because of reforms that passed in 2006 after a scandal surrounded former House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat.

Legislative employees such as Thomas are not allowed to accept anything of value in exchange for official action. They also cannot knowingly accept food and beverages, or other gifts, from a lobbyist, with only a few exceptions.

One such exception that could apply to the relationship allows an official such as Thomas to receive things from a lobbyist if it is based on a business, fraternal, civic, personal or other such relationship that is not related to the public official’s position and was given “under circumstances that a reasonable person would conclude that the gift was not given to lobby.”

Thomas is not required under state law to file a form that discloses economic interests or other possible concerns about ethics, though many public officials must. Lawmakers, in passing the reforms, did not subject their own top employees to disclosures.

Lobbyists also are prohibited under state law from giving things of value to legislative employees. Lobbyists must report their lobbying expenditures to the public in disclosure forms.

Hayes has not disclosed spending any money on Thomas, according to reports on file at the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.

Thomas acknowledged in the interview that Hayes may have paid for a bill at some point, though he did not think so.

If the lobbyist did, he said, it would have been as part of “trade offs” at different places; one buys here, another buys there.

He said “what happens every day” with lobbyists and dinners around Raleigh is that one person in a group will pick up a tab for drinks or dinner, with the idea that it will be made up later.

Officials at the Secretary of State’s office, which handles lobbying reports, and the state Ethics Commission declined to comment.

The N&O on Thursday requested email, text messages, phone records and other correspondence between Thomas and Hayes. The newspaper is also seeking expense reimbursements filed by Hayes internally with the home builders association.

Bob Phillips, who was involved in changing ethics laws as executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause North Carolina, said that personal relationships are not an area covered by laws.

“But anything regarding a relationship where it may be a problem with public perception, I, like anyone, have concerns,” Phillips said. “Public perception is key to a well-functioning, democratic government. When questions could be raised about undue influence and favoritism, you don’t want to see that.”

‘Most successful session’

Lisa Martin, the home builders association’s director of government affairs, wrote to its membership after last year’s legislative session and highlighted a long list of bills the association helped pass, amend or stop.

The association said it led efforts to enact sweeping regulatory reform and changes to workers’ comp laws. The association also said it was successful in repealing a measure that had allowed counties to hold voter referenda to enact a new tax on land transfers; voters in two dozen elections across the state had rejected the taxes in recent years.

In some instances, Martin credited legislative leadership for its help.

One item important to the association that didn’t pass was a $10,000 tax credit its lobbyists sought for new home purchases, a measure they said would spur demand for new homes. “While the House leadership was favorably inclined to enact the credit,” Martin wrote, “we were unable to get the Senate leadership on board.”

Still, Martin wrote that it had been “the most successful session on record” for the home builders and that its lobbyists were a reason. Besides Hayes and Martin, two men were also registered to lobby for the association.

“The secret of NCHBA’s success ... has been and always will be the leadership of its Executive Committee, the hard work of our lobbying team, the support of our members, and the invaluable help from legislators who support the home building industry,” Martin wrote.

She said it is important for the association to guard against future harmful policies and laws, and encouraged members to give money to the association’s political action committee. It gave $277,600 to candidates in 2009-10, making it one of the top sources of campaign funding in the state.

“We must also ensure that our champions and friends in the General Assembly remain in office and assume positions of leadership and responsibility,” she wrote.

Hayes, director of political affairs for the association, is the listed contact person for the association’s political action committee on its website. Last week, she attended a fundraiser for Tillis in downtown Raleigh.

Thomas said he does not have a role in Tillis’ re-election campaign. The campaign started paying $500 per month to Thomas last year, with a listed purpose of rent. That coincides with when the two began sharing an apartment unit in Raleigh.

‘Full disclosure’

Thomas served one term in the House, alongside the future speaker.

Thomas was active on a range of legislation then, even as a member of the minority political party. And he made news when he shunned the typical living arrangements of lawmakers who stay part-time in Raleigh – a condo or apartment – and decided to live in a travel trailer he pulled in from Asheville.

As a candidate in 2006, he had told voters that he supported ethics reforms in Raleigh. “The new system must include a process for ethics-compliance verification and full disclosure,” he wrote in a questionnaire.

He did not seek re-election in 2008.

After ascending to the speaker’s post in 2011, Tillis turned to Thomas to run things in Raleigh.

“Charles and I were freshmen in the House together, were seatmates in the House chamber, and worked side by side on many issues,” Tillis said in January last year. “I cannot think of a better person to lead our team.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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