A big slip

The state House speaker’s top aide and a lobbyist should have anticipated trouble.

May 1, 2012 

Charles Thomas is 40 years old. He served in the U.S. Army for 10 years. He was elected to a term in the General Assembly, the House. He had been staff chief for Republican Speaker Thom Tillis, who is serving his first term in the high post.

So Thomas has friends and doubtless has enemies, owing to his position of influence.

Unfortunately, despite his life experiences, he also fell prey to some very bad judgment, which has cost him his job. He also has put the Republican majority in an embarrassing position. At least, it should be embarrassing to the party that took charge on Jones Street with promises of a clean ethics slate in contrast to Democrats.

Interviewed last week by The News & Observer’s J. Andrew Curliss, Thomas, who is married and from Asheville, acknowledged having an intimate relationship with Jessica B. Hayes, a lobbyist for the powerful N.C. Home Builders Association.

Hayes (records show she also is married) would not comment but confirmed the relationship to her employers. The association has many issues at stake in the capital, and happens to be a heavy contributor to legislative leaders, giving in 2009-10 over a quarter of a million dollars to candidates.

Everybody’s out

Thomas said he would resign and he did. Tillis offered only a brief comment saying the resignation had been accepted. Hayes also resigned upon the request of her boss, Mike Carpenter, the association’s general counsel and executive vice president.

The speaker will have to do more than just accept a resignation.

After all, he and Thomas have been sharing a Raleigh apartment. And this involved someone at the right hand of the speaker of the House and a lobbyist whose job it is to make that speaker an ally on the association’s issues of interest.

Curliss reported that Thomas has taken Hayes to the apartment. Thomas says the relationship was not against the law, and that nothing he has done is illegal. That may be, and since Thomas is not a lawmaker, perhaps he’s technically in the clear on the ethics front.

Legislative employees are not supposed to accept anything of value from lobbyists in exchange for official action. Thomas apparently didn’t do that, and the rules on “in exchange for official action” are pretty wide open to interpretation.

The larger issue here is the effect, or possible effect, on legislation that such an affair could have. Thomas denies that any improper influence came into play. The builders association’ records confirm that on one occasion while the affair was in progress, Boyd met with Thomas on official business. She claimed an expense reimbursement for transportation to a group meeting at the legislature.

Good outcomes

The Home Builders Association naturally expected to have success with a pro-business General Assembly. Its government affairs director, Lisa Martin, wrote to her membership after the last legislative session to express her pleasure with how well the group had done in getting what it wanted out of lawmakers.

Indeed, the group beat down county taxes on land transfers, obtained some regulatory reform to its benefit, and backed changes in worker compensation law. Though Thomas and Hayes’ romantic relationship began after that session, the impropriety is obvious. Had this affair not come to light and continued, Thomas, as Tillis’ chief of staff, would have been in a position to help the builders in the next long session.

Obviously relationships such as this one put a government official in a potentially bad spot when it comes to dealing with legislation that benefits the lobbyist’s client. Consider the potential for conflict of interest allegations, certainly an unflattering light cast on the office of the staff’s boss, and at its most extreme, potential for arm-twisting on behalf of a self-interested group to get legislation it wants.

Tillis must express appropriate alarm over what has happened, and underline ways in which he intends to see that it doesn’t happen again – in either party.

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