House Speaker Tillis’ security upped costs of town hall forums

Tillis’ retinue of protection cost $15K

jfrank@newsobserver.comJune 11, 2012 

NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis

MLEWIS

In a nine-month span, House Speaker Thom Tillis traveled the state attending town hall forums with an entourage fit for a presidential candidate.

His security detail for the 31 forums included two legislative sergeants-at-arms, two General Assembly Special Police officers and numerous local law enforcement agents, all tasked with protection and crowd control.

The speaker specifically requested the sergeants-at-arms and General Assembly police to accompany him under a little-noticed state law approved in the 2011 legislative session. The bill – crafted and pushed by Tillis’ then-Chief of Staff Charles Thomas – gave the legislative officers broader statewide police powers, putting their status closer to State Bureau of Investigation agents and N.C. Highway Patrol troopers.

At the time, Democratic state senators questioned the expense of the expanded jurisdiction, given other state budget cuts. Thomas assured them the cost was negligible.

But a News & Observer analysis of legislative expense records indicates that taxpayers paid more than $15,000 to provide security for Tillis and other lawmakers at the town halls, which Tillis initiated last summer. The whole tour cost the state about $21,000.

The expenses incurred by local authorities were unavailable.

Even with the state pinching pennies, Tillis said the town halls from August to April were worth the cost. “I think when you consider that we were able to reach out to over 3,000 people and go where they are instead of forcing them to go to Raleigh, it was one of the best investments we made in the last year and a half,” Tillis said.

Tillis also defended his security request, saying most of the town halls attracted protesters. “I think anytime you have protests you always have the risk of one person there,” he said. “Most of them, I believe, are all peaceful ... (but) I have an obligation to protect the citizens, the staff and other members.”

Senate leader Phil Berger does not use security when he travels, said Amy Auth, the Republican’s deputy chief of staff.

And when Democratic lawmakers took their message on the road for a weeklong tour in September, they didn’t request security and didn’t charge state taxpayers for the expense, said state Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat.

The Democrats who went on the trip said security was unnecessary because lawmakers travel the state all the time without police protection. For the cost, the lawmakers said they paid their own way or used campaign money because the trip was partly political.

Former House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Democrat, said he never conducted a tour like Tillis when he led the House. At times, Hackney said, he asked his sergeant-at-arms to attend official meetings outside the legislative building but didn’t include additional security.

Gerrick Brenner, the executive director for Progress North Carolina, a liberal advocacy group that followed Tillis on his tour, said the speaker’s safety concerns regarding protesters were “ludicrous.”

At the start of the tour, Brenner said his group’s protest equaled two staffers standing next to poster boards with pink sticky notes representing the jobs cut in the Republican budget. And even after the charged atmosphere from Tillis’ surprise midnight special session in January, Brenner said his group remained peaceful.

“We were adamant we were not going to disrupt the town halls,” he said.

General Assembly police and sergeant-at-arms officials reported no confrontations and no arrests on the town hall tour.

Brenner said the security presence helped Tillis set the tone and control the forums. “It was a power play,” he said. “When your politics are divisive you start to feel paranoid.”

Speaker pushed for law change

A spokesman for Tillis said the change in state law to give General Assembly police broader jurisdiction wasn’t specifically designed for the speaker’s statewide tour.

But a recording of a Senate hearing on the legislation in April 2011 indicates the speaker’s office pushed the bill amid its concerns about the safety of lawmakers.

Thomas, Tillis’ top aide and a former lawmaker, and other proponents told a committee the new police powers were needed to counter unidentified threats against lawmakers and cited the Tucson shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Democratic state Sen. Linda Garrou, a seven-term veteran, expressed worry about the perception of lawmakers cutting education money but spending to protect themselves. “I’ve been going across this state for years and never had protection and never felt the need for protection,” she said. “I’m just kind of curious why we’d do this now.”

Thomas, who resigned earlier this year after being confronted about an affair with a lobbyist, then replied: “If you haven’t received threats yet, you will. ... Most members receive them within a few months of being in office.”

Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca, the committee chairman, also suggested the measure could save money because local law enforcement wouldn’t be needed at legislative meetings outside Raleigh.

The legislation gave General Assembly police broader investigative power and enabled officers to make advance trips to the locations of the town halls for security assessments and meetings with local law enforcement.

Officers’ duties on tour

At Tillis’ request, General Assembly police Chief Jeff Weaver said his officers were sent on the tour to handle disruptions, as they do for other official legislative committee meetings held outside the statehouse.

“It takes a lot of time to do these events,” Weaver said when asked about the cost.

The legislative police coordinated their efforts with the non-sworn sergeants-at-arms. Officers would often drive Tillis to events.

Clyde Cook, the House sergeant-at-arms, said his assistants helped maintain order and decorum through crowd control in addition to handling administrative functions, such as setting up podiums or flags.

Tillis conducted the meetings under General Assembly rules, forbidding signs and applause. He also sought out questions from those who didn’t agree with him. Cook credits Tillis with defusing the tough questions.

The bulk of the $15,000 security bill covered meals, hotels and travel for the General Assembly police, totaling about $7,000, according to an analysis of expense records. Another $3,500 paid overtime for security personnel, records indicate.

Tillis didn’t file any reimbursement forms because he receives $1,413 stipend each month to cover his expenses.

Another $6,000 spent on the tour covered meals, hotels and travel for two Tillis staffers, spokesman Jordan Shaw and operations director Dodie Renfer, who shadowed the speaker.

Hotels accounted for much of the tour’s cost as the speaker took multi-stop, overnight trips to places like New Bern, Wilmington, Murphy, Boone and Asheville.

Tillis wanted to hold 50 town halls across the state but didn’t reach his goal. The tour may continue this summer.

Staff writers J. Andrew Curliss and Rosella Age contributed to this report.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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