Under the Dome

McCrory’s office has spent $238,000 defending media lawsuit

A coalition that includes The News & Observer has filed a lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, alleging a pattern of state records law violations that the plaintiffs say amount to “willful” failures to carry out mandatory duties.
A coalition that includes The News & Observer has filed a lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, alleging a pattern of state records law violations that the plaintiffs say amount to “willful” failures to carry out mandatory duties. cseward@newsobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office has spent more than $230,000 on an outside law firm to defend itself in a public records lawsuit filed in 2015 by a media coalition, according to billing invoices.

McCrory’s office provided the records Thursday after The Charlotte Observer filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking the information. The paper filed the complaint after the governor did not respond to a records request in October seeking the invoices from Charlotte’s Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, as well as all correspondence to the law firm.

The governor’s office did not provide the correspondence, which the Observer is still pursuing. McCrory, a Republican, is in his final days in office after losing his re-election bid to Democrat Roy Cooper.

Instead of having the state attorney’s general office defend the case, McCrory is using outside, private counsel, at taxpayer expense. Bob Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice, and staff attorneys are also working on the case.

“It’s a sad commentary that The Charlotte Observer continues to waste tax dollars by pursuing a frivolous lawsuit along with other liberal media groups and left-wing political activists – all part of their continued four-year coordinated campaign against Governor McCrory,” McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said. “At the end of the day, we feel confident this lawsuit will be thrown out of court.”

Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson did not provide comment.

In the 2015 complaint, media companies and public interest groups, including the Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh, alleged that the McCrory administration had shown “patterns and practices of delay, obfuscation, non-responsiveness, foot-dragging and stonewalling” when it came to fulfilling public records requests.

This week, a three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel rejected an appeal by the governor that said he had “sovereign immunity” and could not be sued over a claim that is not specifically spelled out in law. Such protections, McCrory’s attorneys contended, should shield the governor from the broader claims in the media coalition’s lawsuit.

The appeals court ruling means the case could move forward in trial court, absent a review by the state Supreme Court.

The information turned over Thursday by the McCrory administration includes 14 invoices from Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson totaling a little more than $238,000 issued to the state between September 2015 and this month. The biggest invoice was for more than $43,600 on Feb. 8.

The bills did not include details on the work the was provided or hourly rates.

Wednesday’s suit was the second filed by the Observer against the administration in recent months. In October, the Observer sued McCrory seeking emails related to House Bill 2 that had been requested six months earlier. The paper began receiving emails from the governor a little more than a week later.

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker

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