Under the Dome

NC governor asks support for veto of bill that would ‘protect politicians who commit fraud’

On the eve of a one-day session to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill making campaign finance investigations confidential, the governor pointed to election-fraud allegations in the 9th Congressional District as proof that greater transparency is needed.

Cooper’s office released a statement by the Democratic governor on Wednesday calling the controversy over absentee ballots centered in Bladen County “disturbing” and describing the General Assembly’s legislation as “astonishing.” He said it “mandates secrecy” and makes it harder to prosecute those who break the law.

The governor issued a public plea for voters to urge their legislators to uphold the veto. Cooper said the bill was rushed through the legislature and should be set aside so that he and lawmakers could negotiate a new bill.

“Tell legislators that you don’t want to protect politicians who commit fraud,” Cooper said in the statement. “... We are down to the last five days of the lame-duck Republican super majority. Don’t let the last act make it easier on criminals.”

Cooper has focused on one section of the elections bill that would require campaign finance complaints to be made to the State Ethics Commission. The commission would make confidential recommendations to the State Board of Elections over whether or not criminal referrals should be made to district attorneys.

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Cooper has been fighting that provision since the bill cleared the General Assembly two weeks ago by overwhelming margins on votes of 34-3 in the Senate and 81-18 in the House. The so-called super-majority has given Republicans the ability to override vetoes with three-fifths of a vote, but Republicans lost members in the November election and will only have a simple majority edge come January.

There are other provisions in the bill, most notably 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.

The state elections board is investigating mishandled absentee ballots in an election in which Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. A consultant who worked for Harris’ campaign is at the center of the probe.

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

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

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

Senate leader Phil Berger has disputed Cooper’s concerns about the legislation, saying it gives the governor separate boards as he wanted.

“The only confidentiality is if a charge is made, if someone files a complaint, that’s the confidentiality,” Berger told reporters earlier this month. “If the board makes an investigation, if they find something, the information is perfectly legitimate and ought to be released.”

State Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, retorted Cooper with a tweet of his own Wednesday afternoon.

“Nothing in this Bill impacts ‘secrecy’ in criminal conduct as we are seeing in #CD9 perfected by the Democratic Bladen Improvement PAC,” Lewis wrote. “You’re trying 2 manipulate debate because you’ve sued & made a mess that causes ALL Election oversight to end. Come clean.”

Lewis was referring to lawsuits Cooper has filed challenging the legislature’s rewrite of state election laws, which limited the governor’s authority. In October, a panel of judges ruled the new laws were unconstitutional, but postponed its ruling until after the November election. Amid uncertainty over the potential impact on the elections and ethics boards, Lewis had warned of “chaos” unless the judges delayed their order.

The House is scheduled to attempt a veto override at a morning session on Thursday, and send it to the Senate if Republicans are successful.

There is also another veto override scheduled, although one that is far less controversial. A 20-page list of provisions in the bill includes a section that would make municipal charter school employees eligible for state benefits.

Cooper, in his veto message, said charter schools could lead to taxpayers footing the bill to racially segregate students. He also said he vetoed the bill for a section that would hamper storm water and water quality protections.

The Senate is scheduled to take up that bill and then send it to the House if the override is successful.

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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.