State ethics panel to investigate lobbyists tied to Tillis aides

Commission also to look into clients of two linked to Tillis aides

acurliss@newsobserver.com, jfrank@newsobserver.comJune 5, 2012 

The state Ethics Commission has launched an investigation into two lobbyists who had intimate relationships with top aides to House Speaker Thom Tillis as well as the special interests who hired the lobbyists, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer.

The probe will examine whether lobbyists Jessica Hayes and Dean Plunkett, or the organizations that employed them, violated state laws that ban gift-giving by lobbyists and require accurate reports of expenses related to lobbying of legislative employees, according to letters the commission sent to the lobbyists in late May.

The News & Observer reported in April that Hayes was in an intimate relationship with Tillis’ chief of staff, Charles Thomas, who resigned after he was questioned about the relationship.

Tillis later determined that his policy adviser, Amy Hobbs, had an ongoing relationship with Plunkett and asked her to resign.

A key focus of the Ethics Commission inquiry would be whether the lobbyists provided things of value to the public officials.

“This investigation may also address other statutory provisions within the Commission’s jurisdiction that may have been violated,” according to a notice of allegations sent to Hayes and Plunkett on May 21.

The commission is seeking records and could seek to subpoena documents. The notice says possible punishment could include criminal charges and civil fines.

The commission is composed of eight members, divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, appointed four members, including chairman Robert L. Farmer. Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger, both Republicans, appointed the other four.

“It’s clearly within their right to pursue,” Tillis said of the probe. “I respect their judgment on anything that they think should be taken up.”

Hayes worked for the N.C. Home Builders Association.

The association’s general counsel, Mike Carpenter, has said previously he welcomes any outside review of the lobbying by Hayes and said that, while he did not believe any laws were broken, the relationship that developed was clearly inappropriate. He forced Hayes to resign in late April.

On Tuesday, Carpenter said an ethics investigation is confidential by law. “Consequently,” he wrote in an email message, “NCHBA respectfully declines to comment.”

Brian Allen, a vice president at Cii Associates, said he received a letter from ethics officials disclosing the investigation of Plunkett, who has lobbied for several clients, and for the technology company the past two years.

Allen said his company has not reimbursed Plunkett for any expenses he may have incurred.

“We pay a flat fee and try our (best) to stay out of a deal where it’s anything otherwise,” Allen said.

At the time of his resignation, Thomas said that he believed he always paid for Hayes’ meals and drinks when they were out together. If Hayes paid for anything, he said, it was only under circumstances in which he had paid for something as well. He said he took no official actions to benefit her.

Ex-aides aren’t targets

A review by The N&O of internal N.C. Home Builders Association expenses for Hayes showed that she sought reimbursement early this year for traveling from her office near Cary to the Legislative Building for a lobbying meeting with Thomas after their intimate relationship had begun. The listed purpose of the trip was: “Meet w/ Charles Thomas.”

The association has a one-page memo that documents what happened in that Jan. 19 meeting but declined to allow The N&O to review it.

Thomas and Hobbs have not been identified as targets in the investigation because they no longer work for the state and, as a result, no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the commission.

Last week, the legislative ethics committee declined to investigate the matter, saying it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the conduct of staffers and lobbyists. But the committee said it would draft rules to prohibit such conduct in the future.

The lobbyists and others were given until later this month to file a formal response to the allegations.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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