Fletcher Hartsell has represented Cabarrus County and surrounding areas north of Charlotte in the state Senate for more than 24 years. He’s also a lawyer who represents clients with business before – or needing action from – state government.
In those roles, Hartsell has sued a state agency on behalf of a charter school company. He closely watched the state Board of Education work through changes to his client’s virtual charter contract.
And he’s had at least one client appear in front of a committee he co-chaired.
It’s a difficult balancing act for legislators who are also lawyers. Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said Hartsell’s dual roles have generated questions.
“It does raise eyebrows,” said Jewell, whose organization opposed virtual charters.
Hartsell, a Concord Republican, has drawn other attention for mixing the personal and political. The State Board of Elections is investigating his use of at least $100,000 in campaign contributions to pay personal credit card debt in 2011 and 2012. An elections board spokesman said the probe remains active.
But Hartsell says now, in an interview, that he will back away from his work for North Carolina Learns, which is bringing the for-profit virtual education company, K12 Inc., to the state.
Hartsell had sued the Board of Education after it decided it would not consider applications for online charter schools, but he says he’s tired of reading about his involvement as if there’s something wrong with it. The 2012 lawsuit was unsuccessful, but it went all the way to the state Court of Appeals.
“I’ll just be blunt,” he said. “People, in the papers, all these other folks, make all these allegations I’m doing this for a particular reason. I’d just as soon avoid any question.”
Legislators and other elected and appointed government officials must reveal their employers, real estate holdings and investments in statements of economic interest filed with the N.C. State Ethics Commission.
But lawyers do not have to disclose their clients, so their work for companies or individuals with interests in state action may not always be known. Thirty-three attorneys servein the General Assembly, though not all of them practice.
In general, the main things that lawyers in public service need to watch out for is being in a position to financially benefit their firms, said Perry Newson, executive director of the N.C. State Ethics Commission.
The determinations are specific to each situation and may come down to the person’s position in a firm, whether they are equity partners, for example, or if they have a relationship with a firm but are not partners or associates.
There are some exceptions, Newson said. For example, if the legislative action benefits a class of people, the lawmaker would be able to participate. Newson used as an example a legislator who is married to a teacher is permitted to vote to approve teacher raises. “The class exception would allow you to do that because it’s for an entire class of teachers,” he said.
It’s not unusual for legislators to face potential conflicts. They are usually signaled by their requests to be excused from voting on a bill.
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain lawyer, represented an investor who wanted a Catawba Indian casino in Cleveland County. Moore told his Republican colleagues of the conflict and stepped away from any legislative discussion on the casino while other House members were signing on to a letter opposing the casino in 2013.
Gov. Pat McCrory worked for the law firm Moore & Van Allen as a “senior director of strategic initiatives” for about three years before taking office in 2013. He has consistently refused to publicly disclose his clients.
Charter ties continue
It was an amendment to last year’s state budget, inserted by state House members, that created a pathway for virtual charter schools by requiring that two be approved as pilot projects. That led the way to North Carolina Learns’ contract to start the online charter.
Hartsell said he had no part in the budget addition requiring online charters. He said he is careful to avoid conflicts of interest by recusing himself from votes on issues that would affect his clients exclusively.
“A lot of these are judgment calls, and if there’s a conflict, I just recuse myself – even if there’s a potential conflict,” he said. “Just because you’re a member of the General Assembly doesn’t mean you have to – you don’t have clients. You have a consulting role and you have a legal assistance role, and you have to parse that as best you can. I’ve done that for 25 years.”
Hartsell recused himself from votes on a bill last month that would require traditional public schools to split more of their money with charters.
Before the budget was approved last year requiring online charters, Hartsell sponsored two bills dealing with charter school application reviews and approvals. They did not become law. He said last week those bills were not related to his work for his charter client.
Though he says he is not going to continue his legal work for North Carolina Learns, Hartsell has recently signed on as a consultant to charter management company NewPoint, which has offices in Florida and Ohio.
Much of the overlap between his legal work and state policy interests springs from Hartsell’s home county connections.
Early in his legislative career, he was the attorney for the Cabarrus school district and for Cabarrus County.
North Carolina Learns had its beginnings in Cabarrus, and some of its founding board members were from that county.
Chris Withrow, chairman of the North Carolina Learns board, said a former board member tasked with finding a lawyer recommended Hartsell, known in the county for years of work for the county school board.
In 2012, the Cabarrus school board agreed to sponsor the virtual school application in exchange for 4 percent of the state money the company received for North Carolina students enrolled. It was that attempt at starting online charter, which Hartsell defended in court, that the state Appeals Court halted.
Withrow said he did not know whether Hartsell’s position as a legislator was a factor in his getting hired to work for the nonprofit. The board member “vetted a number of attorneys, and her recommendation was Fletcher,” Withrow said.
Some of the local ties that led him to represent North Carolina Learns are gone, Hartsell said, and that played into his decision to stop representing the group.
Hartsell’s firm, Hartsell & Williams, has represented another entity with state interests, Daymark Recovery Services, since its inception about 11 years ago. Hartsell said he knew members of the company’s founding board of directors.
Billy West Jr., who runs the mental health services nonprofit, ended up talking last year to a mental health subcommittee Hartsell co-chaired. Hartsell said he doesn’t remember how West ended up speaking to the commission, but said it may have been at his invitation.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Hartsell said. Hartsell said it makes sense for administrators to come talk to legislators. West that day gave a presentation on mental health crisis services.
West said he remembers the invitation to speak to the committee coming from someone else. Harstell comes to one or two board of directors meetings a year. Most of the legal work is handled by other attorneys in his office, West said in an email, but Hartsell occasionally handles Daymark’s cases.
“I cannot think of a single bit of legislation that has benefited our company,” West wrote.