North Carolinians can hope for enlightenment, but should not hold their breath for it, when a legislative oversight committee convenes Nov. 18 to look into an increasingly disturbing incident and its related fallout. That fallout has showered over many Republican leaders in Raleigh.
A series of events connected to a big Republican political contributor, Graeme Keith Sr., and his alleged suggestion that his political contributions ought to get him benefits in the form of state prison maintenance contracts. The matter has embarrassed his friend, Gov. Pat McCrory, and Sen. Phil Berger, his chamber’s president pro tem, along with House Speaker Tim Moore.
It now turns out that Berger, kingpin of the General Assembly, reached into the state budget and on his own, removed a provision crucial to this growing controversy. The senator, with Moore, excised on Keith’s request a budget provision that banned all future private prison maintenance contracts.
Berger says he wouldn’t have done his maneuver with the budget if he’d known the FBI was looking into the issue. But he shouldn’t have done it, FBI or no FBI.
This is a doozie. The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reported that McCrory, who got thousands from Keith and Keith's son and business partner, arranged an October meeting with prison officials and Keith. Keith proposed that his company should take over maintenance of the state’s 57 prisons.
A prison officials’ memo about the meeting stated that in the presence of McCrory and prison officials, Keith said he “had given a lot of money to candidates running for public office, and it was now time for him to get something in return.” McCrory says he was in another conversation and didn’t hear those remarks. Keith has characterized the memo as a misrepresentation.
But the truth is, if that was Keith’s expressed attitude, it wouldn’t surprise anyone. Big contributors of course expect something in return; they’re just not foolish enough to say it.
In this case, though, the contributor was asking the state to do something that just isn’t a good idea. Privatization works sometimes, though rarely, and turning over prison maintenance to a private concern presents all sorts of security worries, related to keeping those private workers safe, and keeping prisons secure while the work is done.
But Berger and Moore were apparently happy to do Keith a favor at the public’s expense.
The lack of public disclosure about Berger’s move, which came after that request from Keith, reveals an arrogance of power. Someone can make a call to a single powerful legislator and get the state budget altered to his specifications? Good grief.
Democratic House leader Larry Hall has it right when he says Berger and Moore should recuse themselves from any oversight of a legislative inquiry. They’ve become part of the story, as is the governor and now his budget director. The FBI has some work ahead.