A state Senate committee on Thursday voted to take the rare step of issuing a subpoena to Cabinet secretary Larry Hall after he failed to appear for the third time at a confirmation hearing that the Cooper administration contends violates a court order.
The overwhelmingly Republican committee voted along party lines to compel Hall to appear next Thursday and testify, regardless of what Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper advises him to do. Senate leader Phil Berger said he would sign the subpoena.
“We have reached a point that the executive branch is challenging the constitutional authority of the General Assembly and, specifically, the Senate,” Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine, said at the meeting. “He has shown disrespect for this committee.”
Democrats on the committee argued that the panel didn’t have the legal authority to compel Cooper’s Cabinet appointments to participate in the confirmation process. Republicans enacted a law in December giving them the role of providing advice and consent in the governor’s appointments, and Cooper then sued to block it from going into effect.
Republicans and Democrats cite different parts of a court ruling in the case as justification.
A three-judge panel refused to block the confirmation process and noted the law gives the Senate the authority to sign off on appointments made when the General Assembly is not in session, as was the case this year. The court also found that the nomination period hasn’t begun because the governor hasn’t formally submitted his appointees’ names to the Senate, and he has until May 15 to do so.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for March 7.
Cooper named Hall as his Cabinet secretary over the Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs. His is the first nomination the Senate took up.
The governor’s office issued a statement but didn’t say if Cooper will return to court to ask that the subpoena be quashed.
“Larry Hall is a Marine Corps veteran and longtime legislator who brings a wealth of experience to his work as Secretary for military and veterans affairs,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that this committee, which has ignored the findings of a court order by meeting prematurely, would engage in this political charade when there's so much to focus on repealing HB2 and raising teacher pay. We look forward to the March 7 hearing on the constitutionality of this unprecedented process.”
At a news conference before the committee meeting, Berger, an Eden Republican, said Cooper’s position had complicated what could have been a routine confirmation process, saying the candidates appear to be qualified in their fields of expertise.
“Transparency in government is a good thing,” Berger said. “Giving the people of this state an opportunity to learn about unelected department heads who control billions of their tax dollars is not something anyone should be fighting over. Nor should it be controversial that public officials must – like everyone else – follow the law.
“It is mind-boggling that this is even considered controversial and that the governor is fighting back so hard on this. ... For whatever reason the governor has turned this into one of the biggest political fights of the year. It makes us wonder: what on earth does he have to hide?”
After the meeting, Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, issued a statement. “If this is going to be Republicans’ approach to working with Governor Cooper and Democrats to build a better North Carolina, then it is going to be a very long eight years for them,” McKissick said.
The legislature has broad subpoena powers. Committee chairs can subpoena people with approval of legislative leaders, in this case Berger or Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
The law requires at least a five-day notice of a demand to appear before a committee. Subpoenas can be served by the General Assembly police, the State Bureau of Investigation, the State Highway Patrol or local officers within their jurisdiction.
They have been used sparingly as a tool.
The last one came in 2011, when Lynn Holmes, who was head of the Division of Employment Security, was subpoenaed by the legislature to testify under oath at a committee meeting after missing a previous meeting about her plans to implement reforms. She said she had a personal conflict.
In 2010, a Senate judiciary committee subpoenaed a UNC-TV reporter and more than 200 hours of raw tape from a documentary purporting to link the aluminum company Alcoa with pollution in Stanly County. UNC-TV is a state agency with a newsgathering operation.
In 2014, senators threatened to subpoena Budget Director Art Pope to explain why his staff didn’t attend a meeting to answer questions about Medicaid costs. The matter was resolved without resorting to that.