NC ethics process needs an overhaul

Gov. Pat McCrory has sidestepped inquiries into his ethics and conflicts of interest over the past few years.
Gov. Pat McCrory has sidestepped inquiries into his ethics and conflicts of interest over the past few years. tlong@newsobserver.com

It was perfectly fitting last week when the Center for Public Integrity gave North Carolina a letter grade of D in a nationwide State Integrity Investigation. Recently, Gov. Pat McCrory announced that the State Ethics Commission had dismissed two complaints which spotlighted his repeated failure to disclose serious conflicts of interest. The same study also gave the Ethics Commission a D grade. The dismissed complaint likely had no influence on the poor grade, but they both underscore a state government ethics process which is derailed, discredited and in need of repair.

McCrory’s pattern of omitting key conflicts of interest from his ethics forms has been so egregious, it is hard to believe his “mistakes” were not intentional. McCrory failed to disclose ownership of over $10,000 of Duke Energy stock on an annual ethics report after Duke spilled tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River. McCrory failed to disclose over $185,000 of income from Tree.com, paid after he was sworn in as governor. McCrory also failed to report a series of political junkets to fancy hotels around the nation paid for by outside groups funded by corporate interests.

The governor chalks it all up to confusing forms, differences in legal opinion and a series of honest mistakes. McCrory even blamed his own lawyer at times, yet the same lawyer is still at the governor’s side. Meanwhile, McCrory’s staff launched a full-throated attack on the media and messenger, similar to what we now see from some presidential candidates.

The governor’s pattern of omissions is serious, because if they were intentional, then he broke the law and committed a crime. Given the simplicity of some of the disclosure requirements, claims of a governor making an honest mistake, and then again, and then yet again, are simply incredible to believe.

It all raises awkward but important questions for the Ethics Commission. At what point does a pattern of bumbling “mistakes” become willful omissions and a deliberate intent to hide and deceive? At what point should the Ethics Commission truly dig in and seek out the truth behind the actions of a governor who appointed some commission members to their commission seats?

Even more disappointing, the Ethics Commission dismissed the McCrory complaints with very little explanation other than to say it found “no probable cause” to warrant further investigation. The key question for the Ethics Commission was this: Did the governor intentionally hide conflicts of interest from his ethics forms? The Ethics Commission, a majority of whom are appointed by McCrory and his allies in the legislature, offered no assurances as to how hard they tried to answer that question. What did the commission’s investigation actually entail? The public has no real indication.

Of course, the governor could have taken meaningful steps to bolster the public’s trust in the ethics investigation by allowing the case file to be open to the public. McCrory, after all, claimed in July that his “administration is a champion of transparency,” as media outlets had just sued to force McCrory to comply with the state’s open records act. McCrory also said he “will always fight to ensure that the truth comes to light.” But in keeping with his penchant for secrecy, McCrory refused to reveal any details about the ethics investigation. McCrory (or his lawyer) also filed a written response to the ethics complaints, and McCrory could have at least publicly released that official response. He still could, but predictably, McCrory has kept that response hidden as well.

If the governor has been so wrongfully maligned in a “smear campaign” as he described, and if he has nothing to hide, why would McCrory continue to keep his ethics case hidden from the public? The governor campaigned on bringing reform, transparency and sunshine to state government. But in trying to dismiss claims that he has hidden conflicts of interest, the governor again retreats to his true instinct for secrecy. McCrory’s reaction only proves the point. He is a governor who is hiding important and relevant information from the public.

The only information McCrory did release about the ethics complaints was the dismissal decision, which was supposed to be confidential. But why did he release the information three weeks after the decision? It is noteworthy that his announcement came shortly after reports of new and different pay-to-play questions around a McCrory campaign donor and a prison maintenance contract. Was McCrory’s timing of the ethics announcement part of an attempt to change the subject from another more serious ethical problem which has drawn questions from the FBI?

The bottom line is the Ethics Commission’s ruling for Pat McCrory was a good day for politicians who want to work in the ethical shadows and hide conflicts of interest. It was a bad day for North Carolina voters who want transparency and full disclosure in their state government. And North Carolina’s grade of D in a State Integrity Investigation may be deserved. Given current events, it may even be a little generous.

Gerrick Brenner is executive director of Progress North Carolina & Progress NC Action.