House speaker Tillis defends payments to ex-staffers

Democrats say House speaker shouldn’t have given taxpayer funds to workers who resigned over intimate relationships with lobbyistst

acurliss@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2012 

NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis

MLEWIS

Amid calls for him to use taxpayer money differently, State House Speaker Thom Tillis on Thursday stood by his decision to pay two former top staffers an extra month of salary after they resigned over improper intimate relationships with lobbyists.

Separately, the N.C. Home Builders Association said that it paid no extra money to its lobbyist, Jessica Hayes, who had also resigned after the revelation last month that she was in a relationship with Tillis’ chief of staff, Charles Thomas.

“She did not receive any severance or payment in lieu of ... notice,” said Mike Carpenter, general counsel for the home builders.

That’s in contrast to the authorization by Tillis of $12,500 for Thomas and $6,833.33 for former policy adviser Amy Hobbs, who also acknowledged an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist.

The money was paid to both former employees on Friday; Tillis said it would aid them in their abrupt departures. Thomas resigned April 27. Hobbs’ last day was May 4.

“I recognized that their jobs and careers were forever affected by their choices,” Tillis said in a statement Thursday, “and that serious family obligations still existed for each of them. I stand by my decision to accept their resignation while recognizing the difficult transition period they are now entering.”

Tillis said that Thomas worked without pay in December 2010 and January 2011 without pay, and that Hobbs worked in January 2011 without pay. Tillis announced their hiring Jan. 4, 2011, and was sworn in as speaker on Jan. 26, 2011.

Tillis, a Republican from Cornelius, told The News & Observer for a report in Thursday’s editions that he wanted to take into account the “human side” of the situation.

State laws and rules did not require that any payments be made to the staffers.

The listed purpose of the payments was “pay in lieu of notice.” An explanation of that provided to the N&O by the speaker’s office references a British law that allows workers there to receive payments when dismissed.

Democrats and a special interest group Thursday both urged Tillis to find other ways to pay his former staffers.

The state Democratic Party called the money a “golden parachute” that was equivalent to the annual pay of a teaching assistant. The party said Tillis should use campaign money to pay his former staffers.

Progress North Carolina, a nonprofit that has sought to bring attention to cuts in education funding, said Tillis should cover the cost himself.

“Speaker Tillis ought to reimburse the state out of his own pocket for this egregious abuse of the taxpayers’ money,” said Gerrick Brenner, the group’s executive director.

Brenner called the payment to Thomas “seed money” for a government relations firm Thomas launched this week.

Records show the initial paperwork for the business was filed in February, while Thomas was still chief of staff for Tillis.

In an interview, Thomas said at the time he was only reserving the name of his company, Third Reading, for future use. He acknowledged that government consulting was a natural path.

Tillis, who shared a Raleigh apartment with Thomas since last fall, told reporters Thursday that he was unaware of the consulting firm until this week.

“To my knowledge, he filed for an LLC, but I don’t think he did anything until he was officially severed from the state,” Tillis said.

GOP leaders silent

Republicans in leadership positions were silent about the payments Thursday.

Reached by telephone, House Republican leader Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex said he did not know anything, then hung up. He did not answer a return call.

The GOP speaker pro tem, Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem, said he was attending to a family matter and could not comment.

The state Republican Party directed a request for comment to Tillis’ office.

Curliss: (919) 829-4840

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