Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Ethics law doesn’t pertain to fundraisers appointed by McCrory to NCDOT board

Justice Paul Newby, right, administers the oath of office in March to five new and three returning members of the state Board of Transportation. From left: Andrew Perkins, Patrick Molamphy, Tracy Dodson, Walter Debnam Jr., Hugh Overholt, Sandra Fountain, Terry Hutchens and Gus Tulloss.
Justice Paul Newby, right, administers the oath of office in March to five new and three returning members of the state Board of Transportation. From left: Andrew Perkins, Patrick Molamphy, Tracy Dodson, Walter Debnam Jr., Hugh Overholt, Sandra Fountain, Terry Hutchens and Gus Tulloss. NCDOT

Two of Gov. Pat McCrory’s five appointees to the Board of Transportation this spring are Republican fundraisers. A blind spot in state ethics law prevents the public from seeing how much money they helped McCrory collect from campaign donors.

When the governor’s first batch of appointees filed their disclosure forms two years ago, one of them – Mike Smith of Raleigh, who later stepped down from the transportation board – reported having raised more than $100,000 to help McCrory win election in 2012.

But McCrory’s 2015 appointees are not required to disclose their roles in his campaign. Complying with two overlapping state laws, they have filled out questionnaires that focus – pointlessly – on more recent donations and fundraising in 2013 and 2014.

Of course, the man who appointed them was not campaigning for governor then. They reported they had not collected money for him. Along with appointees to other important state boards this year, these new transportation policymakers are not being asked the obvious question on their disclosure forms and statements of economic interest: What they did they do for McCrory’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012?

So the Road Worrier tried to ask both of them. One replied.

Their answers matter – and not because of any shady dealings by McCrory appointees, or because there’s anything necessarily wrong about raising campaign money.

North Carolinians learned not long ago what could go wrong when board members mixed the authority to award highway and other Department of Transportation contracts with the power to solicit campaign donations – sometimes shaking down the businesses that depended on those contracts.

In 2008, two fundraisers were forced to quit the transportation board, one of them on the day he had planned to host a campaign dinner for Bev Perdue, then the Democratic candidate for governor. Responding then to these abuses, then-Republican gubernatorial candidate McCrory called for the elimination of “any fundraising for those currently on Department of Transportation boards, university boards and ABC boards.”

He illuminated the issue at a campaign ethics forum on Sept. 16, 2008.

“We should not give the appearance that someone gets an appointment because they’ve raised thousands upon thousands of dollars for a particular candidate,” McCrory said. “And there’s no doubt that that’s been the norm in state government for decades.”

This is recent history we do not want to repeat.

In March, McCrory appointed Terry Hutchens, a Fayetteville attorney and chamber of commerce board chairman, to the transportation board’s Division 6 seat. Hutchens is a big supporter of McCrory and other Republican office-seekers. On the disclosure form he filed in April, Hutchens reporting raising more than $61,000 from donors for a handful of Republicans who ran for office in 2014, half of it for now-U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

Election records show that Hutchens and his wife gave McCrory about $18,000 of their own money during his 2008 and 2012 races, including $6,000 in in-kind donations – which can represent expenses related to a fundraising dinner or similar event.

Did he raise funds for McCrory? Hutchens did not respond to the Road Worrier’s requests for comment. McCrory’s spokesman did not respond, either.

Pat Molamphy of Pinehurst, the board’s new Division 8 member, is up front about his support for the governor. Molamphy owns an insurance agency and a company that operates convenience stores and restaurants. He and his wife also gave about $18,000 to McCrory’s two campaigns, including about $6,000 in kind.

Molamphy says he wasn’t a “bundler,” personally gathering stacks of campaign checks, but he recalls helping to pay for a “McCrory event” that raised money for the candidate.

“Yeah, I know I did,” Molamphy said Friday. “I would have to go back to find out the amounts of money.”

Under reforms that began with the Perdue administration and have continued under McCrory, leaders in both parties have taken steps to separate backroom politics from DOT spending decisions. Project priorities are set by objective rankings based on published criteria.

Board members no longer vote on highway contracts. Sure, they still can ask road builders or anybody else for campaign donations – but now that they have less power, they might have to ask harder.

“I think the board has improved and the process has improved,” said Jane Pinsky, who heads the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

Molamphy acknowledges “the power of the board has been severely diminished,” but he thinks he still has an important role.

“Listening to what taxpayers have to say, helping property owners get through the different processes of curb cuts and eminent domains,” Molamphy said. “If they have a hassle, they feel they have someone they can go to and maybe talk to DOT management.”

About those ethics laws: They do pose the right questions regarding the people a new governor appoints soon after taking office. But for these midterm appointments, since they don’t refer specifically back to the governor’s campaign, they’re useless.

Democratic governors and legislators were in charge in 1998 when rules for transportation board members were adopted, requiring campaign disclosures for only two preceding years. Democrats and Republicans together wrote legislation in 2010 that, for statements of economic interest filed by many public officials, addresses fundraising during just one preceding year.

Pinsky says the reporting requirements should cover the most recent campaign, at least.

Candidate McCrory called in 2008 for more transparency in this reporting, “so you know who’s raising money for candidates.”

Unless the transportation board adopts a policy against it, Molamphy expects to host a campaign fundraiser at his home for McCrory in 2016.

“If I’m asked to, I probably will,” Molamphy said. “I believe Gov. McCrory is a great governor, and I’ll help him get re-elected if I can.”