John Drescher

Drescher: McCrory’s prison-contract meeting gets curiouser and curiouser

Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Frank Perry, NC Secretary of Public Safety, right at a press conference in Raleigh on August 5, 2014.
Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Frank Perry, NC Secretary of Public Safety, right at a press conference in Raleigh on August 5, 2014. cseward@newsobserver.com

The more the McCrory administration tries to set the record straight about its meeting with Pat McCrory friend and contributor Graeme Keith, the more muddled its explanation becomes.

Some background: Gov. McCrory arranged a meeting with Keith in Charlotte in October 2014 to discuss Keith’s contracts to handle maintenance in three state prisons, which Keith wanted to expand.

McCrory’s top prison officials attended. One of them wrote a memo that reported Keith said “he had been working on this project ‘private prison maintenance’ for over ten (10) years and during that time had given a lot of money to candidates running for public office and it was now time for him to get something in return.”

Keith disputes that characterization but others say it is accurate. The News & Observer reported on the meeting in October 2015. In that story, McCrory said he did not hear Keith say that and if he had, he would have walked out of the meeting.

“My secretary (Frank Perry) informed me that that was said probably while I was in a side conversation...,” McCrory said in the Oct. 31 article.

In some subsequent stories, The N&O attributed to McCrory the explanation that he missed Keith’s remarks because of a side conversation.

Side conversation?

Our latest story on the matter, which was published in print Jan. 22, grew out of emails sent by McCrory press aide Graham Wilson on Dec. 6 requesting a correction or clarification.

Wilson wrote: “The governor never directly said he was in a side conversation, that was attributed to Secretary Perry.”

That raised the question of whether McCrory was in a side conversation when Keith spoke. So we asked Wilson about it. Curiously, despite several inquiries from reporter Joseph Neff, McCrory has declined to answer the question of whether he was talking with someone else when Keith spoke.

With no answer from McCrory, we went to the source who, according to McCrory, said he was probably in a side conversation. That was Frank Perry.

With no answer from McCrory, we went to the source who, according to McCrory, said he was probably in a side conversation. That was Frank Perry, secretary of the Department of Public Safety.

Neff made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Perry. Neff finally was able to interview him Jan. 14 after an unrelated meeting at the Legislative Building.

Perry said he did not recall telling McCrory that a side conversation might have prevented McCrory from hearing Keith’s remarks.

‘Soil our Gov’

We published those comments online. Shortly after, Perry clarified his comments and said his memory was the same as McCrory’s; we added his comments to the online story and published them in the Jan. 22 print edition.

Perry also wrote a letter to The N&O, which we published, saying he was preoccupied with another matter when interviewed by Neff. Perry also wrote that every action taken by the McCrory administration on this matter was ethical and proper.

That contrasts with Perry’s text in late 2014 to McCrory’s budget director, who renewed the Keith contract over Perry’s objections: “Very bad decision. Sorry, but this will soil our Gov....”

In an interview Friday, Perry again confirmed Keith’s comments and said they were inappropriate. “It was a bad idea to do business with this company,” he said. But he said a bad decision is different from an unethical decision.

That seems, in this case, to be a subtle distinction. McCrory pledged to clean up Raleigh. The meeting with Keith smells bad. Several people have confirmed that the FBI is investigating Keith’s contract, which Perry eventually canceled.

The governor could clarify matters by answering some basic questions: When Keith spoke at the meeting, was McCrory in a conversation with someone else? Or not?

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, jdrescher@newsobserver.com, @john_drescher

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