State Politics

A reporter says the Highway Patrol commander shoved him. Watch the video.

The head of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol reportedly got in a physical confrontation with a reporter who was asking about behavior by some high-ranking troopers that a state audit had previously called wasteful and potentially dangerous.

Last year a state audit identified high-ranking Highway Patrol officers who were commuting long distances from their homes to their work stations, in a violation of agency policy. At the time, the new administration under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper blamed the previous administration under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

But just days after that audit came out, Cooper’s new Highway Patrol commander, Glenn McNeill, exempted some high-ranking state troopers from the commuting policy that the state’s other 1,600 troopers are supposed to follow, Charlotte TV station WBTV reported.

Reached Tuesday, State Auditor Beth Wood’s spokesman Brad Young said: “We stand by the content of our report and do not have any further comment at this time.”

The report focused on eight troopers, most of whom lied about their living situation, according to the report.

That audit had found that troopers’ violations of the commuting policy “resulted in higher fuel and maintenance costs and may have reduced the useful lives of their respective vehicles,” and also “may have jeopardized response time to critical calls.”

It’s unclear if anyone was ever punished for the rules violations that the audit found.

‘Stay back. Stay back.’

The WBTV report uncovered the exemptions McNeil issued after the audit. The TV station’s video shows WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner following McNeill through a parking lot asking him questions.

McNeill then brushes past Ochsner to get on an elevator. When Ochsner starts to follow him in, McNeill puts a hand on his chest and blocks him, telling him “stay back” five times. After Ochsner tells McNeill not to touch him and reminds him the elevator is public property, McNeill lets him in and the questioning continues.

WBTV characterized the incident as a “shove.” NC Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker said: “It is clear in the video, the colonel did not shove the reporter.”

Walker said McNeill’s boss, Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks, was out of the office Tuesday and unable to comment. However, she said, Hooks “is confident that the colonel is appropriately enforcing the Highway Patrol’s policies and regulations.”

Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Michael Baker did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

In his WBTV interview, McNeill defended the change in policy, saying that the people he exempted from the commuting rules “have statewide duties and responsibilities.”

A 250-mile commute?

The 2017 audit found several troopers who were driving more than 100 miles on their commute, even though agency policy prohibited anyone from living more than 20 miles from their duty station.

WBTV reported at least one of the people McNeill later gave an exemption has an even longer commute: Captain James Wingo, who lives in Asheville but works nearly 250 miles away in Raleigh.

According to WBTV, Wingo justified his extensive travel in his state-owned vehicle by saying he makes traffic stops and helps respond to wrecks while on his commute – but public records show it’s been almost three years since he last issued a ticket in any of the counties he drives on or near his commute, WBTV reported.

McNeill told the station that Wingo does things that don’t show up in public records, like helping people change flat tires.

Before McNeill gave Wingo and the others those exemptions from the rules, Hooks had said he and McNeill agreed with the audit’s findings.

Hooks wrote in a Sept. 5 letter to Wood that “I want to assure you that Col. McNeill and I share the concerns expressed in your report” and that they “share your vision of 100 percent compliance and I assure you we will settle for nothing less.”

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran