Two Republicans in the state House are questioning actions Rep. David Lewis took during this year's legislative session related to a state printing contract held by a campaign donor.
It's the second time this month that fellow Republicans have accused Lewis, of Dunn, of possible "pay-to-play" activity as part of his post as House Rules chairman, where he has the power to make or break pieces of legislation. And it's the latest dust-up in an ugly battle between two factions that have formed among House Republicans, who have controlled that chamber since 2011.
Rep. Justin Burr, of Albemarle, said in a phone interview that he believed Lewis modified a bill he sponsored in an attempt to protect the printing contract of the donor. Burr said his bill aimed to save "tens of thousands of dollars" a year through the elimination of a mandate to print and distribute hundreds of copies of lengthy reports from the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
State law mandates that those reports — which can be 800 pages or longer — are printed and mailed to hundreds of recipients also named in the law. Capital Marketing Solutions, owned by New Bern businessman Owen Andrews, holds the contract with the Administrative Office of the Courts to print and distribute the reports to judges, state agencies and officials, universities and other recipients. It has cost the state an average of about $350,000 annually in recent years, according to records provided by an AOC spokeswoman.
Andrews contributed $2,000 to Lewis' re-election campaign during the first half of this year, around the time Burr's bill was up for consideration. Andrews also has given to Lewis in the past.
We need to eliminate the printing of those reports so the money can be better invested in the courts system.
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Albemarle
The court reports are available for free online, so printing the vast majority of them is a "waste of money," Burr said. "We need to eliminate the printing of those reports so the money can be better invested in the courts system," Burr said.
Lewis deemed the accusations of pay-to-play politics "absurd" and "100% false" in a letter he wrote to his House Republican colleagues after Charlotte TV station WBTV first reported the story about a week ago. Lewis also told fellow members in a conference call he arranged just before the airing of the television piece that he believed the accusations were an attempt by certain House members to tarnish his reputation.
Lewis is a top lieutenant of House Speaker Tim Moore, and Burr and Moore have had a well-publicized spat in recent weeks.
"Regrettably, the only reason you are on the call right now is that certain members in our caucus have taken it upon themselves to use this insignificant issue to advance what they see as a political battle with me," Lewis said on the conference call, according to a transcript of his remarks that he released.
House Bill 38
Burr filed his bill Feb. 3 to eliminate the mandate to print most of the court reports, while still sending them to the people who needed them most, such as Supreme Court justices. It's unclear how much money that would have saved the state, but Burr suggested it would be "tens of thousands of dollars" a year. House Bill 38 also would have required the courts system to set up a process to allow anyone to purchase hard copies of the appellate reports. The language came from recommendations from a special judicial efficiency committee, which met after the 2013 legislative session and which Burr co-chaired.
On March 4, a House judiciary committee signed off on Burr's bill and sent it to a budget committee for further review. More than three months later, on June 9, the bill was removed from the budget committee and referred to the Rules Committee, which Lewis chairs. On July 22, a day when Burr was out of state, Rules met to consider changes to the bill, with Lewis leading the meeting.
In an interview, Lewis acknowledged that he put back in the bill the language requiring the printing of the reports. The new version allowed any recipients to opt out of getting the reports by notifying the AOC in writing. Burr's original language required recipients to opt in. Asked during the committee meeting why the requirement to print the reports was being put back in the bill, Lewis responded: "There was some push-back to the elimination of these reports so it was decided the opt-out option … solved everybody's concerns." The Rules Committee approved the changes.
There was some push-back to the elimination of these reports so it was decided the opt-out option … solved everybody's concerns.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Dunn
Lewis said the General Assembly had passed a bill earlier in the session, House Bill 224, allowing report recipients to opt out of receiving them by notifying the courts system in writing. That bill ensured the state didn't produce unnecessary reports, while making sure people who wanted hard copies still received them, Lewis said. He said he was notified during session that the language about the court reports in House Bill 38 conflicted with the language in House Bill 224, so it needed to be removed so the other provisions in Burr’s bill could move forward.
Burr's bill next went to the Finance Committee. There, Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican and House majority leader, returned the bill to its original form, eliminating the mandate for the printing of the reports and allowing entities that wanted them to request and pay for them. That version passed through that committee and was approved unanimously by the full House, including Lewis, in mid-August.
It never went anywhere in the Senate, so the language in House Bill 224 — requiring the printing of the reports unless recipients opt out in writing —remains the law. Burr said he didn't know why his bill stalled in the Senate.
“Clerical error” or “pattern”?
Earlier this month, Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican, filed a complaint against Lewis with the General Assembly's Legislative Ethics Committee. The complaint, Cleveland said, centers on legislative actions taken by Lewis this year that seemingly protected the state contract of a company run by Lewis' friend and campaign donor, Rickie Day. Day’s contract involved the towing, storage and sale of vehicles seized from motorists charged with certain traffic offenses. Lewis said he was "very confident" the committee would find nothing wrong with his actions.
Day was listed on Lewis' campaign finance report as a "teacher," which he is not, rather than a state contractor. Lewis said that was a "clerical error on the part of my campaign finance team" and corrected it with the State Board of Elections. Day is now listed as a "contractor" on Lewis' report.
Andrews contributed $1,000 to Lewis' campaign on Jan. 20 and again on May 19, according to disclosure reports. Lewis said the timing of the donations corresponded to mailings his campaign sent to potential donors.
Lewis said he knows Andrews because he is a vendor for the state's elections machinery and ballots. In addition to running Rules, Lewis also is chairman of the House Elections Committee.
"I've known Owen for quite some time and he has been a strong supporter of mine for several years now," he said.
Lewis said Andrews never asked him for help with his contract. Andrews didn't return phone messages seeking comment.
In the same campaign finance report in which Day’s occupation was incorrect, Owen Andrews is spelled "Owen Anrews," and his company is listed as "Kennell Development," which also is misspelled. Andrews owns Kenell Development, which does not receive state money for printing court reports.
Burr and Hager have questioned the discrepancies in Lewis' reports pertaining to Day and Andrews, suggesting that they were done intentionally to try to mislead the public about who was giving to his campaign.
The fact that errors in the reports involve the possible pay-to-play situations is "concerning," Burr said.
"Once is an error. Twice is a pattern," he said.
Lewis cited clerical errors for the mistakes and is correcting them with the Board of Elections. Clinton Stanley, Lewis' campaign treasurer, said the mistakes were made in the rush to get information typed into a program and submit the reports on time.
Asked about concerns that the mistakes involved Day and Andrews, he responded: "I think it's just an amazing coincidence." Stanley said he is revamping his process to look more closely for similar issues on future reports. "Obviously, people are looking at these things," he said.
Another ethics complaint?
Burr and Hager said they are considering filing an ethics complaint or seeking some other punitive action against Lewis. Hager said he is concerned about the appearance that a state contractor has influenced the legislative process. "It's a practice that needs to stop," he said.
Lewis said he wouldn't be surprised if legislators use the ethics process "as political weapons against each other."
"I think that sword cuts two ways, and I hope that members don't start to abuse the ethics process over frivolous complaints," he said.
Lewis and Hager, as Rules chairman and majority leader, respectively, are two of the most powerful House members. The fact that they are feuding so openly points to serious divisions among House Republicans. In speaking out against Lewis, Hager cited a need to "defend the integrity of the caucus."
He hasn't cited any other motivation, although some have speculated that he might be angling for the speaker's dais in 2017. Moore has said he would seek the post again if re-elected in 2016.
In recent weeks, Moore and Burr also have sparred publicly. As Burr filed to run for re-election earlier this month, he released a statement saying Moore had aligned himself with a group of friends in the House, while marginalizing more conservative members and "pushing an agenda that does not align with the Republicans' promises to be efficient and effective with the taxpayers' dollars." He threw in some barbs about how long the 2015 session dragged on and the relatively low number of bills passed.
Moore responded by calling Burr "disgruntled" and said his constituents deserve better. He acknowledged dissent from a "handful" of House Republicans but downplayed any suggestion that there is a major problem in the House caucus.
In his conference call to fellow Republicans, Lewis urged them to put aside their differences and instead focus on uniting against Democrats. He cited Republican accomplishments since taking over House and Senate majorities earlier this decade.
House members shouldn't waste time "pursuing petty political family feuds" when "liberal interests" want to take over the state, he said.
"I know the temptation is to think this is easy and our majorities are perpetual," Lewis said. "If we all give in to the temptation to put our personal ambitions and biases against each other ahead of working for the people, we will not be here long."
Gannon: 919-829-8956, @Pat_NCInsider