Shanahan doesn't go far enough

May 22, 2013 

Kieran Shanahan has his own Raleigh law firm with his name in the title. He and his wife and others started a lobbying firm, CompassNC, in 2009. Shanahan’s profile was raised by four elected terms on the Raleigh City Council, where he gained a reputation as a sometimes confrontational conservative.

The prosperity of the state Republican Party in recent years doubtless has been of benefit to Shanahan in his professional career, which is fine. Many Democrats and Republicans alike are helped by political activity.

In Shanahan’s case, his political experience and GOP credentials got him a post as secretary of the Department of Public Safety under Gov. Pat McCrory.

Accepting the job doesn’t mean Shanahan has to resign from the human race and take a vow of poverty (his salary of $135,000 is adequate, to say the least), but it does mean he needs to avoid the pitfalls of real or potential conflicts of interest. On that score, the secretary needs to do more than he has done so far.

After The News & Observer began looking into Shanahan’s part-time work for his law firm, which he insisted did not conflict with his role as a Cabinet secretary, he said he would take a leave from the firm and not practice law. That was appropriate.

But about the lobbying firm ...

Shanahan’s wife, Tina, a nurse and captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, has worked for a number of clients with CompassNC but now says she’s not doing much besides advising the lead partners, helping with management and working with a few clients. The firm does not lobby on behalf of clients that might have something to do with the state department her husband heads, Tina Shanahan said.

But because the law firm and the lobbying firm share an office suite and through early May had the same fax number and listed a common administrative employee, the relationship remains troubling. The connections are too close.

And then there’s the lobbying firm, Capitol Access, owned by Yolanda Stith. Ms. Stith does indeed have good access to the state Capitol, as her husband, Thomas Stith, is Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff.

The name of the firm is perfect, playing into the hands of critics of the lobbying process at the state and national levels who say lobbyists are basically selling access. It’s simply not acceptable for the spouse of someone who is at the governor’s right hand to engage in lobbying, even though McCrory’s spokesman says that the governor knows who Yolanda Stith’s clients are and that steps have been taken to avoid conflicts of interest.

That’s fine, but the appearance of a conflict, or even the appearance of a potential conflict, is too much to ask the public to accept.

Bob Hall, head of the government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, rightly says the connections between Shanahan’s law firm and the lobbying firm should be investigated. He thinks the secretary of state ought to see whether there have been conflicts with Shanahan’s role as a departmental secretary and special interests. That might involve disclosing a client list.

Republicans have not held the governor’s office in 20 years, and just as GOP leaders of the General Assembly have stumbled as they’ve adjusted to power after a drought, so those around the governor may not understand the potential problems with holding power and the sacrifices that those in public life have to make to maintain the public’s trust.

It’s time that the governor’s people learned the ropes – and quit stumbling.

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