House Speaker Moore needs to explain his work for a developer’s company

Tim Moore, Speaker of the House, left, confers with Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore, in the Senate chambers during a special session of the N.C. General Assembly at the Legislative Building in 2016.
Tim Moore, Speaker of the House, left, confers with Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore, in the Senate chambers during a special session of the N.C. General Assembly at the Legislative Building in 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore doesn’t want to explain his questionable work for KNOW Bio, a Triangle-based pharmaceutical start-up co-founded by a developer who benefited from special legislation sponsored by Moore.

When The News & Observer’s Dan Kane questioned Moore about his contract with KNOW Bio, he wouldn’t even confirm he previously had a contract with the company, let alone discuss how much he was paid. But a former KNOW Bio executive said she discovered — and promptly ended as unnecessary — a contract that the company’s co-founder, developer Neal Hunter, had set up with the House speaker.

Moore, an attorney, says attorney-client privilege prevents him from identifying his clients. That’s a questionable response since Anne Whitaker, the company’s former chief executive officer, and Harry Smith, a former member of KNOW Bio’s board, have confirmed that the company had a retainer agreement with Moore.

Moore’s reticence is especially concerning because this contract from Hunter came after Moore’s legislative actions benefited Hunter. In 2013, when Moore, a Republican, was chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, he pushed through special legislation that overruled city of Durham officials and allowed for the development of 751 South, a 166-acre residential and office development near Jordan Lake.

Hunter sold the land for the 751 South project and has a stake in it. One of its developers is Alex Mitchell of Durham, a friend and and campaign supporter of Moore’s. State records show that since 2013, Mitchell and his wife have contributed $30,300 to Moore. Hunter and his wife have contributed $33,300 over the same period. Mitchell and Hunter did not respond to Kane’s repeated requests for comment.

Moore and his developer friends would rather not say anything about this cozy arrangement in which the legislature takes the rare step of overruling local officials in a land use case and the sponsor of the legislation gets an undisclosed contract from a beneficiary of the legislation.

Unfortunately, existing state ethics laws do not require Moore to disclose how much he was paid by KNOW Bio nor the relationship itself. But given his role as one of the state’s three most powerful officials, Moore has an obligation to explain the extent and nature of his work for the company.

As Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said of the contract, “Without disclosure, it’s not going to pass the smell test for North Carolinians.”

Meanwhile, this arrangement needs scrutiny from federal and state agencies. Whitaker, the former CEO, said her understanding of Moore’s work for KNOW Bio was that he was pushing for changes in federal tax law that would help companies that develop new antibiotics. However, Moore never registered as a federal lobbyist.

Meanwhile, this matter reveals a yawning gap in state disclosure requirements. Lawmakers who are lawyers don’t have reveal who their clients are, even those clients who are paying them significant amounts of money. And some lawmaker lawyers are quite busy in their private practices. Moore, for instance, says he has more than 100 private clients.

While he wouldn’t discuss his contract with KNOW Bio, Moore said the public should have confidence that he avoids conflicts of interest. He said: “Know this: Anytime I take on a client I ensure there are no conflicts with other legal matters I’m handling, and I’m always double extra careful to make sure there’s no conflicts or anything with my legislative role.”

The problem is we don’t “know this” about KNOW Bio. The public is entitled to know more about the private business dealings of the man who can steer or sideline legislation. The law may not require it, but continued public confidence in the House speaker does.