Under the Dome

Reformer: McCrory ethics updates ‘amazing’

In the two years he has been governor, Pat McCrory should have filed only two disclosure statements to the state’s Ethics Commission detailing his various economic interests.

McCrory has now filed six – and his office acknowledges more amendments are on the way.

The purpose of the forms is to help public officials identify where they may have conflicts between their public and private interests, and state law says the forms should be complete and accurate.

The latest disclosure from the governor revealed that McCrory, a Republican, accepted about $13,000 in trips he did not pay for in 2013 to seven governors’ association meetings. Four were for Republicans only, attended by a range of special interests. Previous amendments dealt with his holdings of stock in Duke Energy, his longtime employer, and a subsidiary.

McCrory hasn’t yet disclosed any paid trips for 2012, when he was covered as a candidate. His form covering 2014 is due next month.

The governor blames the repeated ethics corrections on misinterpretations of the forms. But they have now spawned two formal complaints, dueling partisan news conferences near the Governor’s Mansion and moments of déjà vu for those who closely followed the past decade in North Carolina politics.

Late Saturday, the governor’s office said it would not agree to open up the ongoing inquiry process – something only the governor, as the subject of the complaints, can do.

In a different era, it was former Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer leading a charge for more openness and transparency – most often he focused on then-Gov. Bev Perdue, who didn’t seek re-election in 2012. Fetzer pounded on Perdue, and predecessor Mike Easley, over their failure to disclose, among other things, trips paid by others.

Fetzer is now a lobbyist, and he declined to comment on the current governor’s situation.

At one point in 2010, after Perdue had filed a series of disclosures about campaign flights she took that were not accurately disclosed, Republicans alleged there was a deliberate effort to hide information from the public.

“These were not mistakes,” Fetzer said then. He urged open hearings about Perdue’s campaign.

The late Jack Hawke, who was McCrory’s top consultant, criticized it as a “way of doing business.”

“You don’t make the same mistake over and over and over,” McCrory’s adviser said then.

In a period before all that, it was Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic consultant, who became the face of an effort to oust former House Speaker Jim Black, also a Democrat, and to bring openness to state government amid a stream of revelations in the mid-2000s. In the end, federal prosecutors swept Black out – and to prison.

Sinsheimer became a visible advocate for ethics reform and more transparency as Democrats ruled. He still watches state politics, now from his home in western Canada.

He said the continuing disclosures from McCrory are “amazing.”

“Given the trouble this issue caused both the Easley and Perdue administrations, Gov. McCrory should have been hypersensitive to this issue,” Sinsheimer said. “While the governor’s office can blame the problems on poor legal advice and a confusing form, at the very least this controversy shows the governor’s complete ignorance of the trouble this issue has caused previous governors.”

He added: “I am just surprised how sloppy he has been.”

Sinsheimer echoed a defense McCrory has given.

“I continue to believe that the state form is very poor,” Sinsheimer said. He suggests state officials adopt federal disclosure forms, which have more clarity.

Last week, on the steps of the Ethics Commission’s offices in downtown Raleigh, news conferences were held by the group most critical of McCrory and by the Republican Party.

Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress NC Action, channeled the Fetzer and Sinsheimer of old, surrounded by props about McCrory’s “undisclosed” trips. “What else is McCrory hiding?” he said.

Progress NC Action believes crimes may have occurred and it pressed the governor to be more open. State law allows McCrory to open any inquiry about him to the public. McCrory’s chief lawyer, Bob Stephens, criticized the group as “left wing and mysteriously funded.”

“By law,” Stephens said, “this part of the process is confidential and we will continue to follow the law while responding to these partisan political attacks.”

Todd Poole, the state Republican Party’s executive director, told gathered reporters that Progress NC Action’s only goal was to carry out a liberal “attack” plan to “eviscerate” and “cripple” the governor.

He also had said the focus should be on the group raising the questions – not on the governor. And he questioned whether a lawyer at the Ethics Commission was conflicted because he has past ties to a lawyer who filed Progress NC Action’s complaints.

Asked whether he had concerns about the governor’s repeated updates to correct previously filed forms, he said he would not comment.

J. Andrew Curliss