Politics & Government

North Carolina approved $500,000 to help track sex offenders. It was never spent.

Screen grab of North Carolina’s sex offender registry
Screen grab of North Carolina’s sex offender registry

State lawmakers gave the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association $500,000 last year to help find ways to keep better tabs on sex offenders, such as tracking their cars and where they work.

It was money neither the association nor the State Bureau of Investigation, which manages the statewide sex offender registry, had asked for. The money’s inclusion in the state budget was driven by an influential lobbyist for a software company seeking the state’s sex offender tracking business.

But the sheriffs’ association’s executive committee, after studying the current system and taking bids for an upgrade, decided it didn’t want to spend the money given how it’s designated in the state budget.

The state gave the money as a one-time expense, but the bidders for the business gave proposals that would require a recurring stream of money. Those bidders included Permitium, whose parent company ScribSoft Holdings hired lobbyist Andy Munn, a former top aide to House Speaker Tim Moore. Munn persuaded Rep. Allen McNeill, a former chief deputy for Randolph County’s sheriff’s office, to add the $500,000 allotment to the budget.

There is nothing in state law that prohibits former legislative aides from becoming lobbyists — who can then persuade lawmakers to pass legislation that could ultimately benefit their clients. State law, however, does require lawmakers to wait at least six months from leaving office to become lobbyists.

Caldwell said the way the money was added to the budget played no role in the association’s decision not to spend it.

“Because none of the submitted proposals included any provision for funding of continuing operations after the initial legislative grant funding ends, and in order to avoid continuing funding becoming a responsibility of the sheriffs’ office or county government, the (association’s) Executive Committee voted to not award any of the grant funds pursuant to this project,” according to a report from the sheriffs’ association.

Can the money be spent?

The association and the SBI are now interested in the SBI using that $500,000 to put those improvements in place, said Eddie Caldwell, the association’s executive vice president and general counsel.

That may not happen. The money had been designated for awarding by the association by June 30, the end of the past fiscal year, and it would take new legislation to spend it now.

Caldwell said the current system is doing what it is required to do under the sex offender law.

“The existing system does what it was designed to do, and that is register sex offenders,” Caldwell said. “What the sheriffs are saying is if (the system) tracked additional information, it would help us in our investigating and monitoring of sex offenders.”

North Carolina’s registry is more than 20 years old. There is no standardized system that sheriffs use within their offices for collecting the sex offender information they then put into the digital registry, which is public and is also shared with the national sex offender registry. The sheriffs either have their own digital systems to hold that information and more, or in the case of less populated counties, sheriffs may still use paper files.

The association set up a committee that included three sheriffs, two professors with UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government and a Wake County assistant district attorney to review information from sheriffs about tracking sex offenders. Among the findings:

Sheriffs’ offices have to enter sex offender information into multiple databases. A better integrated system between state and federal agencies and the sheriffs would cut down that duplication and provide quicker notification when sex offenders are arrested or haven’t verified their whereabouts.

Addresses for schools and day care centers from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the state Department of Health and Human Services need to be integrated into the system automatically so that the locations are available to law enforcement and the public. The system also doesn’t allow deputies to add new schools or day care centers.

The system lacks a reliable, accessible map for determining the 1,000-foot restricted area around schools and day care centers, making it hard for sex offenders and deputies to know where offenders can find residences that do not violate the law.

The system needs to connect with as many states as possible to track sex offenders who move to North Carolina. It also lacks a “uniform feature” to track where homeless sex offenders are residing.

Deputies can’t take pictures and upload them into the system while out in the field. The system also doesn’t allow for uploading photos of the sex offender’s residence and vehicles, nor does it have a place to enter places of employment, contact information on friends or relatives of the offender, or court-imposed conditions.

The system needs to be more accessible to law enforcement anywhere and technical help should be made available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The system should also give agencies the ability to generate reports and view statistics.

Sex offenders and public information

The report does not speak to how much of the additional information should be made public on registries or only available to law enforcement.

“Sheriffs are focused on the public safety side,” Caldwell said. “As far as what’s available to the public, generally that’s more a question for the legislature.”

The information on states’ sex offender registries vary. Florida, for example, includes the vehicles an offender owns or has registered. Wayne Logan, a Florida State University law professor who studies sex offender laws, said vehicle, work and residence information is considered public and courts have determined it can be used to track sex offenders.

The legislature’s proposed budget includes a provision keeping the $500,000 in place so that the SBI can use it “for costs associated with upgrading the sex offender registry.” Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the budget, however, and lawmakers adjourned last week without both chambers passing an override of his veto, which means the money remains in the general fund.

Anjanette Grube, an SBI spokeswoman, said the agency had no comment given the money is in limbo.

Last year, state legislative leaders rolled out a budget in the form of a conference report that only required an up-or-down vote in each chamber. As a result there were no committee meetings to vet the sex offender spending or other budget provisions.

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.