GOP changes weaken elections and ethics oversight

Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the N.C. House, is seen here on March 30, 2017.
Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the N.C. House, is seen here on March 30, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

Questions about North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore’s potential conflicts of interest are growing and the investigation into election fraud in the 9th Congressional District continues, but beyond these unresolved matters one political scandal is already clear — Republican legislative leaders have impeded the state’s ability to investigate election irregularities and ethics violations in a transparent and credible manner.

Since taking control of the General Assembly, the Republicans have tinkered with and tugged at the state’s investigative machinery to a point that the public can have little confidence that the state’s political actors are being effectively policed or appropriately punished.

The transition away from accountability started in 2014 with legislation that moved the State Bureau of Investigation from under then-Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and put it under the jurisdiction of then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. That switch moved the SBI into the much larger executive branch, where there are more opportunities for corruption and greater political pressure to keep scandals quiet.

Since Cooper’s election as governor in 2016, the Republicans have tried to wrest control of the State Board of Elections by making it a “bipartisan” board of four Democrats and four Republicans that would have assured gridlock in the oversight of elections. The governor’s successful legal challenges to the rearrangement have led to a new board membership controlled by the governor under a law that takes effect Jan. 31.

While the governor supports having the board return to its previous 3-2 balance, he vetoed the bill in December. He objected to the new law’s provisions that make investigations into campaign finance law violations secret and place a four-year statute of limitations on investigations. The new law also requires that any potential criminal activity uncovered by a board investigation be referred to county district attorneys rather than the Wake County district attorney, who oversees the capital county. That change invites more local political pressure being exerted in such cases.

“This bill makes it harder to root out corruption in elections and campaign finance,” Cooper said at a news conference prior to his veto. “It actually provides more protections for politicians and others who violate campaign finance laws.”

Republicans overrode Cooper’s veto.

Whatever happened to the truth-seekers when Republicans were in the minority? Remember their demands for State Board of Elections investigations into charges of election finance law violations by former Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue?

Before Republicans took over, then-state Republican Party leader Tom Fetzer used frequent press conferences to pressure the State Board of Elections into more aggressively investigating Democrats long entrenched in power.

“It’s time the State Board of Elections did their job and quit making the NC GOP and the media do it for them,” Fetzer said in 2010.

These days, it’s a different tune. Republican leaders want the state board to certify Republican candidate Mark Harris as the winner in the 9th District despite evidence that absentee ballots were manipulated. They want the election board’s investigations kept secret and have made it harder to file complaints by eliminating informal email tips and requiring that all complaints be signed and sworn under oath.

And how have the Republican former champions of reform and transparency responded to allegations that Speaker Tim Moore has mixed his legal practice and land deals with his official duties? They re-elected him as House Speaker.