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Conflicting interests over billboards

The News & Observer posted a copy this morning of a confidential ethics opinion state Rep. Stephen LaRoque received after asking it was okay from him to sponsor pro-billboard industry legislation while owning billboards of his own.

(We first reported LaRoque’s financial connections to the billboard industry last week, in this post about a law passed last year that allows billboard owners to cut down wider swatches of publicly-owned trees around privately-owned billboards, without having to replant the trees. Billboard owners will have to get permits from NC DOT.)

LaRoque told the N&O that the opinion cleared him to move forward on the legislation, and it appears to do that, but the actual opinion written by commission attorney Kathleen Edwards isn’t as clear-cut as one might think.

From Edwards’ letter to LaRoque (read the whole thing over at the N&O’s Under the Dome):

 It appears that this bill would provide a reasonably foreseeable financial benefit to you because it would increase the usability and value of those billboards in which you have a financial interest. Therefore, in the event you conclude that there is indeed a financial benefit and that benefit would impair your independence of judgment, you would otherwise be required to decline to participate in any legislative action with respect to that bill.

Edwards then gets into the big “however” in the state ethics law that gave LaRoque the blessing he needed to push forward with the pro-billboard legislation. Essentially, legislators can take advantage of a “safe harbors” exception in state ethics laws when a law affects a whole class of people (commercial billboard owners, in this case) and not just a single company or handful of people.

From Edwards:

This bill would enhance the ability of billboard owners to clear vegetation adjacent to billboards, place a time limit on the denial of vegetation permits, and provide specific means for appealing the decision of DOT officials. It therefore would appear to provide a financial benefit to billboard owners, such as yourself and your business, Piedmont Development, Inc., insofar as it would enhance the visibility of the billboards and thus increase their value. It is unclear, however, whether that benefit would “substantially influence” you….

Given your ownership of relatively few billboards and the fact that the expanded clearing perimeter, and the elimination of the permit requirement under some circumstances, would not benefit you to a greater extent than other billboard owners, the class safe harbor would permit you to take legislative actions with respect to the bill, including the introduction of the bill.

What makes this conflict-of-interest even more interesting, is that two members of the Rules Review Committee, including the chairman, recused themselves from weighing in on the billboard issue when it came before them earlier this month to approve the temporary rules to cut down the trees.

Chairman Ralph Walker, of Raleigh, recused himself because he owned land with billboards on them, said Joe DeLuca, a staffer with the committee that hammers out the final details of legislation. Faylene Whitaker, of Climax, another review commission member, also recused herself from deciding the billboard issue.

Whitaker said she rents billboards to advertise her family business.

“It would have been a conflict of interest,” she said.

8 Comments

  1. James

    January 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    If it involves Stephen LaRoque, it stinks. That’s a rule you can count on.

  2. Frances Jenkins

    January 31, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Does the truth ever matter?

  3. LazloToth

    February 1, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Where do our Democratic Candidates for Governor stand on this issue?

  4. Frances Jenkins

    February 1, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Sarah,
    Is there a problem with the money given to Dalton by the billboard company? Or does it only become an issue for the Republicans?

  5. david esmay

    February 1, 2012 at 9:28 am

    You have two people with vested interests in billboards who recuse themselves due to their own admission that they may have a conflict of interest. Laroque not only has a conflict of interest, but a conflict of ethics.

  6. Sarah Ovaska

    February 1, 2012 at 9:48 am

    @Frances. I do think campaign giving is a huge issue, and both Dems and Reps have been courted by the billboard industry for years. Someone pointed out in the comments in the last post that Dalton had taken in $18K as of 2009 from the industry, according to a Democracy NC report done a few years ago.

    This series of posts/article wasn’t looking at the campaign finance aspect of influence — it was looking at a particular instance where a legislator had a financial interest in the billboard industry, which I was aware of only because of extensive reporting I had done separately on Rep. LaRoque. I felt that the public had a right to know some of the connections Rep. LaRoque had to the industry.

    I do think the campaign contributions that politicians receive from those with vested interests in legislation is a huge concern, and one the public should be made much more aware of than they currently are.

    That said, I don’t think campaign giving (on both sides of the aisle) necessarily holds the same influence or appearance of influence as if a person has a personal financial interest in an industry he or she is writing legislation about. And I think most ethics laws also support that position, which is why people in elected office are generally required to recuse themselves when they or their family have financial interests in a particular issue, where recusals are not required when the legislator/elected officials has received campaign money.

    In this case, what I think was especially telling and informative to the public was the leniency legislators (of both parties) receive under our ethics laws. That is why I felt it warranted reporting, and I think the public needs to be informed of how our ethics laws are or aren’t working. I think the average person isn’t aware of the nuances in the law that would allow a legislator to push a piece of legislation that’s favorable to a particular industry that he or she has a vested interest in.

    I’ve never heard that Dalton owns billboards, or has personal financial interests in the industry. If you know something to the contrary, please feel free to pass that my way.

    I’ve offered you that opportunity at every juncture where you criticize my reporting on open forums, but never received anything back from you in terms of specific allegations of misconduct on behalf of public officials and/or agencies.

    Sincerely,

    Sarah Ovaska

  7. LazloToth

    February 1, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    I am fairly certain that Dalton sponsored the last round of billboard-friendly legislation four years ago. I will check on that. I completely agree that the money is bipartisan and think your coverage is fair. LaRoque was not just another vote, he is the Rules Chairman and was therefore the highest ranking House member on the Conference Committee in addition to being a bill sponsor. He did far more than merely introduce the bill.

  8. [...] advisory to Laroque. Over at NCPolicyWatch, investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska offered up her take on the billboard kerfluffle and the Ethics Commission [...]