Getting homeless sex offenders off the streets
North Carolina's new budget includes $500,000 in taxpayer money to keep better track of sex offenders by cataloging where they work, what cars they drive — even where they are known to travel.
But the state agency that oversees the current tracking system never asked for the money. And the lobbying group for the state's sheriffs learned about the plan only shortly before the budget was approved. Sheriffs are tasked with monitoring offenders.
New money for an improved sex offender database is one of dozens of spending items tucked into a budget that for the first time in modern history never got a hearing in a legislative committee. Those hearings would have allowed the idea to be publicly vetted.
Legislative leaders in the Republican-dominated General Assembly instead released the budget bill in a conference report that was then submitted to both chambers for a yes or no vote. It passed largely along party lines and survived Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto.
The sex offender provision now represents a business opportunity for ScribSoft Holdings, the Southern California company that pushed for it.
The idea for the database came from a lobbyist and former top aide to House Speaker Tim Moore who represents ScribSoft. He persuaded a state budget writer to include the spending weeks before the session began, when lawmakers were pulling together a $23.9 billion budget behind closed doors.
Several weeks ago, Andy Munn, a lobbyist for the company, approached Rep. Allen McNeill to pitch the need for the database. Munn, a former deputy chief of staff to Moore, told McNeill that ScribSoft's product has been a big help to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.
"He came to me with the fact that Mecklenburg County was redoing its sex offender registry, why they were doing it and if there was a possibility that it could be a statewide project," McNeill said.
McNeill, a former chief deputy for Randolph County's sheriff's office, then secured the provision in the budget bill.
The provision calls for the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association to hand out the money in the form of grants to "implement a statewide sex offender database that connects all 100 counties and allows for robust data entry and retrieval at the local level."
'Sex offenders travel'
Eddie Caldwell, the association's executive vice president and general counsel, said it had provided no input on the provision and learned about it only within the past month. The provision was not in Cooper's budget proposal released before the session began.
The state has an online registry managed by the SBI that the public can access to learn where sex offenders live. Sex offenders are required by state law to register their home addresses with the sheriff in that county.
The statewide registry is more than 20 years old, and there is no standardized system sheriffs use for collecting the sex offender information that they then put into the SBI system. Sheriffs in some of the smaller counties may still use paper files. That means additional information sheriffs are collecting, such as where sex offenders work, what cars they drive and places they are known to frequent, isn't easily shared, McNeill said.
"The problem is while every sheriff has his information, the sheriff next door doesn't have access to that, and the sheriffs across the state don't have access to that," said McNeill, an Asheboro Republican. "Sex offenders travel; they're going to the beach, too, just like everyone else."
Special Agent Wyatt Pettengill, who leads the SBI's criminal information efforts, said he was told the money was being made available to sheriff's offices to upgrade their in-house systems and not for a statewide database that would connect the offices. But McNeill didn't rule out the possibility the provision could ultimately lead to a new system that could replace the registry. It could also augment the current registry, he said.
"There is a need to have a more robust system that's got a lot more data in it," he said.
Caldwell said he is unaware of complaints with the SBI registry, but that wouldn't mean there's no opportunity to improve the tracking of sex offenders. He said he wasn't clear what the provision would lead to, but the association has accepted handling the grant money.
Launched in Mecklenburg
The association is not a state agency, which means it would not be subject to public records laws showing how the money is allocated. Lawmakers have required the association to report on the use of the grants by July 1, 2019.
The association also doesn't have expertise on information technology, but Caldwell didn't find that necessary.
"We have sex offender registration experts and that would be our guide as to whether something is working well or not," Caldwell said.
McNeill said legislative staff told him that the SBI wasn't set up to handle the project. He also didn't see the Governor's Crime Commission, which is typically a conduit for state and federal grant money for law enforcement needs, as a good match.
The $24,000 that the Mecklenburg sheriff's office spent to replace its aging sex offender tracking system came from a crime commission grant. That system, produced by a ScribSoft subsidiary called Permitium, has been in operation for about a year. Sheriff's officials are so pleased with it that they let Permitium demonstrate it to other offices.
"The folks who do the actual registering, they like the system a lot more than the older system," said Rachel Vanhoy, the sheriff's business manager.
Websites for Permitium and another ScribSoft subsidiary, Scribbles, show the companies have been involved in database building and management for sheriff's offices and schools for roughly a decade. According to Permitium's website, it has managed gun permitting for roughly a third of the sheriffs' offices across the state and has provided vital records processing for roughly a dozen county register of deeds offices in North Carolina.
But the Mecklenburg sheriff's sex offender tracking system appears to be a first for the company.
Paul Blake, a managing partner with Permitium, said in an email message the company has only one client for that work, which he didn't identify. In a brief telephone interview, he said sheriffs had asked the company to seek the appropriation.
"We were asked to actually get the money on behalf of the sheriffs," he said, "and that's why we kind of walked down that path."
In the follow-up email, he said: "It is our understanding that sheriffs are required by North Carolina statute to track these offenders, and thereby we have worked to address the topic at the state level. The decision as to if and how to request a grant for this purpose is with each individual sheriff."
Efforts to interview Munn were unsuccessful. He began representing ScribSoft in March, lobbying records show, and is representing eight clients in state government matters, including American Airlines, the Carolina Panthers football team and Bank of America. Records show ScribSoft has a second lobbyist, former state Sen. Patrick Ballantine, a Wilmington Republican, in June 2017. The company paid him $5,000 last year.
The $500,000 state appropriation doesn't show up in what's commonly known as the "money report," a companion document to the budget that explains new or increased spending as well as cuts. That's because the provision takes money previously given to the crime commission to hand out to law enforcement agencies seeking to pay for body cameras.
McNeill said the agencies weren't requesting the body-cam grants, which require a local match.
The budget provision doesn't guarantee that ScribSoft will receive the money, McNeill said. Companies will have to put forth proposals through a bid process managed by the sheriffs' association.
"There's no guarantee they will get a dime of this money," he said. "This is going to the sheriffs' association, and they will go through the procurement process and put it out to bid, and whoever the lowest bidder is will get the project."
McNeill said the sheriffs' association has done an excellent job of managing the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program, which manages those convicted of misdemeanors who used to be sentenced to prison but are now housed in county jails.
In 2011, lawmakers began paying the association 10 percent of the money put into a fund to pay for the confinements, or roughly $2 million annually. Two years later, lawmakers cut it back to no more than $1 million.
Since receiving that money, the association has built up more than $3.8 million in net assets, according to its most recent tax report. That's roughly five times what it had before the program began. Caldwell said the asset growth resulted from sound financial management.
Democrats were shut out of the budget process and knew nothing about the provision until the budget bill was released. Rep. Joe John, a state appeals court judge and former director of the SBI crime laboratory, questioned why it was needed when there are state and federal sex offender databases, and no one has pointed out a problem in legislative meetings.
"It demonstrates how having a more open and transparent budget process, instead of closing a significant portion of the General Assembly out of that process, might be helpful all the way around," said John, a Raleigh Democrat.