Under the Dome

Ethics Commission – set to become elections board – secures lawyers in Roy Cooper lawsuit

John Branch speaks on behalf of Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign at the N.C. State Board of Elections during a hearing considering legal questions related to election protests on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Branch is the new chairman of the State Ethics Commission.
John Branch speaks on behalf of Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign at the N.C. State Board of Elections during a hearing considering legal questions related to election protests on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Branch is the new chairman of the State Ethics Commission. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Days after a judge stopped a Republican-led overhaul of the state’s election board, the State Ethics Commission – which would become the elections board under the new system – voted Tuesday to appoint state attorneys in the case.

The commission held a closed-door meeting with attorneys for two hours to discuss Gov. Roy Cooper’s lawsuit challenging the elections board change. It then named two lawyers from the attorney general’s office who will represent the commission during a hearing in the lawsuit set for Thursday.

The elections overhaul was set to take effect Sunday but was put on hold by a Wake County Superior Court judge last week after Cooper filed a suit that argues the change is unconstitutional.

The change was approved by the legislature during a special session last month and signed by outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. It would replace the current State Board of Elections, which has a majority of members from the governor’s political party, with a new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, combining the elections and ethics boards.

The current Ethics Commission members would serve as the new board until July 1, when new members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders would take office. The new board would have four Republicans and four Democrats, and six votes would be needed to take any action.

In one of his final acts as governor last week, McCrory appointed a new chairman for the Ethics Commission. Raleigh attorney John Branch chaired Tuesday’s meeting; he had previously represented the McCrory campaign in several election complaints involving claims of voter fraud.

Branch called the emergency meeting Tuesday and said the commission is staying neutral in the lawsuit. He said the attorneys named at the meeting will be at Thursday’s hearing to answer any questions a judge might have about the commission.

“We thought it would be prudent to have someone attend the hearing,” he said. “The commission’s position is that the commission’s duties and responsibilities are set by law. The commission is going to fulfill those responsibilities and stands ready to do so.”

Before Cooper filed the lawsuit, staff from both the ethics and election agencies were working on a plan to merge.

“We were in the very preliminary stages of that when the lawsuit was filed, and all that was halted,” Ethics Commission assistant director Pam Cashwell told her board Tuesday. The merger had prompted a “good bit of angst” among commission staff members, but a visit from the Board of Elections’ director – who was to lead the new agency – “helped to alleviate some of the concerns.”

Cashwell said the legislature’s action came as a surprise to the Ethics Commission. “We were not consulted nor did we speak on it,” she said.

The State Board of Elections hasn’t met since the law was passed and hasn’t taken any position on the issue.

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