RALEIGH — House Democratic leaders on Thursday called for ethics investigations of two of Speaker Thom Tillis staffers who admitted having romantic relationships with lobbyists.
The six Democratic leaders signed letters asking the state Legislative Ethics Committee to determine whether laws, rules or policies were violated, and whether new legislation is needed in the upcoming short session to plug gaps in the current law. They also asked the N.C. Ethics Commission to look into whether lobbyists routinely pay for meals and drinks for legislative staffers in violation of state law.
The call for dual ethics probes comes as Tillis, a Republican, scrambled to contain the political damage to his office and to his party. Republicans took control of the state legislature last year, campaigning in part on reform in the wake of several scandals involving Democratic politicians.
This week, members of the Republican caucus in the General Assembly said they are firmly behind Tillis and believe he has handled the scandal appropriately.
On Thursday, Tillis demanded the resignation of his chief of staff, Charles Thomas, after The News & Observer confronted Thomas with photographs and other evidence showing that Thomas was having an affair with Jessica Hayes, a lobbyist for the N.C. Home Builders Association. Hayes was forced to resign from her job.
Tillis said he questioned staff members over the weekend, and thats when he found out that one of his policy advisers, Amy Hobbs, had a romantic relationship with Dean Plunkett, a freelance lobbyist for several interests. Hobbs resigned effective this week, and Plunkett has lost at least two of his clients as a result.
Tillis has released some of the records that The News & Observer has requested emails, calendars and other documents involving Thomas and Hobbs and the lobbyists but not all that the newspaper is seeking under the state public records law.
Public records requested
Tillis said he asked the nonpartisan legislative research staff to find and copy the records, and he did not withhold anything. Tillis told reporters Tuesday that he had determined that there had not been any improper influence in his two staffers relationships with the lobbyist. But he said there might be a need for new laws that would help prevent the appearance of impropriety.
He said there was a gray area between the letter of the law and ethics rules and what I believe need to be higher standards. Tillis said he had tried to do everything I can to take swift action.
Tillis response has played well with House Republicans.
Hes one of the most effective leaders the Republicans have ever had, said Rep. Bill Cook, a Republican representing Beaufort and Pitt counties. Hes doing a heck of a good job. I dont always agree with him, but hes very efficient.
Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Republican from New Hanover and Pender counties, said she didnt think the scandal would harm Tillis. Hes still the same smart man; hes still the same smart leader, Justice said. Its a shame what happened, but I dont think it will affect his leadership.
What bloggers say
But at least two conservative bloggers are less forgiving. Brant Clifton of Pinehurst wrote in The Daily Haymaker blog on Wednesday that Tillis response was weak. He questioned how Tillis couldnt have known about Thomas and Hayes, considering he shared an apartment with Thomas in Raleigh. The two used the apartment when they were in Raleigh.
Tea party activist Randy Dye of Pittsboro, who blogs for NCRenegade.com, said Thursday that he was troubled by Tillis staff.
Were trying to show people were moral and honest people, Dye said.
If our own doesnt monitor his own house, we have to stand up and say, You may be a good person, but youre not leadership material. You should step down.
But Katy Benningfield, who has been blogging about Republican politics in North Carolina since 1998, says those viewpoints are not shared by most conservative bloggers in the state. She said there is a close network of about 30 bloggers, and none of them have been talking about the Tillis scandal.
Weve been more concerned about whats going on in Washington, she said. It sounds like he did a pretty thorough job. I really respect Tillis for doing that. That shows leadership in the office.
Quick action praised
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said Tillis seems to have passed the important test: acting quickly to clean up the mess. He said there might have been extra motivation.
Weve gone through nearly a decade now of political scandals in the state, Taylor said. Republicans have talked particularly in the campaign in 2010 quite a lot about them and said, quite correctly, they were almost exclusively Democratic scandals and they were going to change the way Jones Street worked. So it might be heightened sensitivity to these kinds of things, which might have motivated the swift and decisive action.
Tillis told reporters on Tuesday that he didnt see the need for an outside investigation. But Thursday evening, Tillis issued a statement saying his office would cooperate if and when necessary.
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat, and five others signed letters asking for separate and independent probes. In the letter to the Ethics Commission, they note that The News & Observer reported that Thomas said lobbyists and legislative staffers routinely take turns picking up the tab for meals or drinks.
That implies a violation of the ban on giving gifts or a failure to report lobbying expenses as required by law, the letter says.
We know that you realize the importance of fair play within our government and will handle this request with great thought and care, the letter says. The residents of our state must not be left with the impression that we allow a few high-placed employees to collude to skirt our laws or to improperly further the causes of favored organizations.