Politics & Government

NC lawmakers override veto of bill that makes allegations of campaign finance violations secret

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore gavels in the Hour of Representatives before overriding Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of HB1029 on Thursday, December 27, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.
North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore gavels in the Hour of Representatives before overriding Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of HB1029 on Thursday, December 27, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Republican lawmakers on Thursday held off Gov. Roy Cooper’s attempt to muster enough Democrats to thwart an override of his veto of an elections law bill.

The state House overrode the veto on a vote of 68-40, followed by the Senate overriding on a vote of 28-12.

A large majority of Democrats had voted to approve the bill earlier this month, as it reflected changes in state election law that Cooper achieved in a lawsuit. But despite negotiations with legislative leaders over how to accomplish those changes, Cooper focused the argument on keeping accusations of campaign finance violations secret.

Cooper opposed a provision in the bill that will require allegations of campaign finance wrongdoing to be probed by the State Ethics Commission and its findings to be referred to the State Board of Elections. The elections board could then refer the matter to local prosecutors to consider bringing criminal charges, all in confidence.

On Wednesday, Cooper released a statement saying the legislation would protect politicians who commit fraud. The governor’s remarks irked some Republican legislators, who said the governor wants to use the elections board for politically based investigations.

Last month the elections board chairman appointed by the governor demanded that a Republican senator who had been under investigation for campaign finance violations for 18 months attend a hearing even though his campaign treasurer, who is his mother, was hospitalized with cancer.

Andy Penry later resigned from the board amid controversy that he criticized Republicans on social media, undermining the impartial board.

Ralph Hise, the Republican senator, said there were bookkeeping errors but he settled by paying a fine and restitution. The complaint against him was made by a Democratic campaign finance researcher.

“This is about someone creating a violation for political purposes,” Hise said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Several Republican legislators said the confidentiality provision provides protection against unfounded public accusations that might turn out to be minor errors in reporting campaign finances.

“You’re tarred with that allegation, regardless of whether you’ve had an opportunity to respond to it,” Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Mt. Airy, said on the floor.

But Democrats said it looked bad for the state to keep matters out of the public eye at a time when the public is demanding more accountability.

“Including the provision that adds protections of privacy where the public is going in the other direction is going to look bad on all of us,” said Rep. Graig Meyer of Hillsborough.

Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, called on House members to stick with their earlier vote in support of the bill, but he was not successful.

“I urge members to stick to their original vote and show that when this body votes, when we pass legislation, it counts for something,” Lewis said.

Twenty-three Democrats had voted for the bill earlier this month, but on Thursday all but Rep. Duane Hall of Raleigh got in line with Cooper’s plea and voted to uphold the veto. In the Senate, 10 Democrats voted for the bill but Rep. Joel Ford of Charlotte cast the only Democratic vote for an override.

It was the 23rd veto that the legislature has overridden against Cooper, who has vetoed 28 bills during his first term in office.

Other provisions in the new law include a requirement that if the State Board of Elections calls for a new general election in the 9th Congressional District, then a primary election must also be held. Authorities are looking into absentee ballot irregularities in that district, where Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 904 votes in the general election in November.

The new law will also split the current N.C. State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement into two boards, as was the case before 2017.

The elections board will once again have five members, all appointed by the governor, with three from one party. The previous board had nine members: four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated voter.

The ethics commission will once again be separate. Responsibility for lobbyist registration would return to the secretary of state.

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.