Ned Barnett

McCrory’s blind spots on ethics

The N.C. Democratic Party held a news conference Tuesday, April 7, 2015, to blame Gov. Pat McCrory for tax changes they say are causing many middle class families to pay more.
The N.C. Democratic Party held a news conference Tuesday, April 7, 2015, to blame Gov. Pat McCrory for tax changes they say are causing many middle class families to pay more. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

In his first run for governor in 2008, Pat McCrory fixed on a theme that would prove successful in his second try in 2012. He ran against what he considered the cloaked and unethical conduct of Democrats too long in power.

“People are fed up with the culture of state government, a culture of inaccessibility, a culture of the leaders being invisible, (a) culture of secrecy, and sadly a culture of corruption,” McCrory said at a campaign event in Brunswick County in September 2008.

Now, in the third year of his first term, the words and theme of candidate McCrory have an odd resonance. There’s no evidence that Gov. McCrory has abused his powers, but there is also no evidence that he’s doing much to prevent abuses or dispel the appearance of potential abuses. This “reform” governor is strangely cavalier when it comes to situations that raise ethical questions.

Last week, McCrory stumbled for a third time over proper disclosure on state ethics forms. In response to a complaint from the liberal advocacy group, Progress N.C. Action, McCrory had to amend his forms to show seven previously unreported trips in 2013 valued at about $13,000.

The trips involved McCrory’s attendance at meetings of the National Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association and the Southern Governors Association. Those may sound like part of a governor’s official travels, and McCrory and his legal advisers apparently thought they didn’t need to be reported even though others covered the governor’s expenses. But some of these meetings can be lavish affairs with special interests lining up make their pitches to a state’s chief executive.

The New York Times has reported that corporations gave undisclosed donations of $250,000 each to the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee in return for access. The Democratic Governors Association collects similar donations. It doesn’t sound right, but it’s legal. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that McCrory avoid such gatherings, but he should at least report the value of his covered expenses when he goes.

Exposing the unreported trips was Progress N.C. Action’s second hit against the governor. Earlier, it filed a complaint with the N.C. Ethics Commission over McCrory’s failure to report stock holdings in Duke Energy, his role in a company owned by his brother and delayed income he received from serving on the board of Tree.com, the corporate parent of the online lender, Lending Tree. McCrory says he severed ties with Tree.com before becoming governor, but the company, which is subject to state banking regulators appointed by the governor, paid McCrory $185,509 after his inauguration in January of 2013. The Ethics Commission is considering the complaints. McCrory could ask that the review process be open, but he hasn’t.

McCrory says he’s getting tripped up because he has been in business rather than being exclusively a public servant. But it hardly seems a case of good-government sticklers picking on private-sector Pat. Rather, McCrory has made a living by mingling his public and private roles and now seems oblivious as to where one ends and the other begins. During his years as Charlotte’s mayor, he was also an employee of Duke Power, now Duke Energy. Afterward, although not a lawyer, he worked for Moore & Van Allen, a Charlotte law firm that is often engaged in lobbying. Representatives of Moore & Van Allen delivered most of $235,000 in campaign contributions given to McCrory, the state Republican Party and lawmakers of both parties by an Oklahoma sweepstakes software provider, Chase Burns. Burns, who was pushing for North Carolina to legalize Internet sweepstakes, was later indicted in Florida and Oklahoma on charges of racketeering involving illegal gambling and pleaded no contest to two felonies.

In the sweepstakes case, serious ethical questions remain. McCrory, like some of the legislative recipients, gave the tainted contributions to charity after questions were raised. After a complaint about the contributions was filed with the State Board of Elections, McCrory used his appointment authority to replace the entire, five-member board, including its Republican members. The governor was entitled to make the appointments, but he was insensitive to the timing. Now, two years after the complaint was filed, the Board of Elections says the matter is still under investigation.

Finally, the governor has participated in fundraisers hosted by the Renew NC Foundation, a group formed by his associates to promote his agenda. The independent tax-exempt 501(c)(4) group is not obligated to release the names of donors and doesn’t. If he were truly committed to transparency, the governor wouldn’t abide such a slush fund, or at a minimum would ask that the corporations and individuals who give to it be disclosed.

McCrory has moved from attacking a culture of corruption to fending off ethics questions. In an interview with WRAL after the Tree.com reporting issue, he said, “If I don’t fight against it, that very powerful media machine, with all due respect, with (its) misinformation, I’m gonna be in – people are going to start believing it.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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