Commentary, News

Campaign watchdog’s complaint: Two more state lawmakers engaged in unlawful Berger-like double-dipping

Sen. Phil Berger

Rep. Josh Dobson

Rep. John Torbett

Bob Hall reiterates call for Senate leader to pay back per diem funds

Earlier this year, as readers will recall, veteran North Carolina campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall helped prod the General Assembly and State Board of Elections into adopting new bars on the practice by which a state lawmaker would “double dip” when it came to per diem reimbursements. The daily payments are supposed to reimburse lawmakers for their living expenses while in the state capital, but as Hall demonstrated, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was collecting tens of thousands of dollars in such payments even as the mortgage on his Raleigh townhouse (a townhouse he later sold at a profit to a lobbyist) was being covered via “rent payments” he was receiving from his campaign.

Thanks to Hall’s sharp advocacy, the Legislative Ethics Committee issued a ruling prohibiting legislators from taking a per diem for expenses paid by another source and the Board of Elections barred lawmakers from using campaign funds to buy real property in the first place.

Hall rightfully called on Berger to pay back his ill-gotten windfall of more than $50,000 in response to the rulings, but to date, that does not appear to have occurred.

Still, the enactment of the new rules — especially the bar on per diem doubled-dipping — is already having a broader impact.

Earlier this week, Hall filed a pair of new complaints (click here and here) highlighting the actions of two more members of the General Assembly: State Representatives Josh Dobson and John Torbett (Dobson is also the Republican nominee for state Labor Commissioner). This is from Hall:

Ethics Complaint: Commissioner of Labor Candidate Josh Dobson and Rep. John Torbett Improperly Took Large Sums from State Government

The Republican candidate for NC Labor Commissioner and an influential state legislator are accused of using state funds for their personal profit in complaints filed today with the Legislative Ethics Committee by a longtime government watchdog.

The complaints say Commissioner of Labor candidate and current NC House member Josh Dobson and another House member, Republican John Torbett of Gaston County, have charged the General Assembly tens of thousands of dollars since 2017 for expenses the two lawmakers did not incur because they were paid by their campaign committees.

According to one complaint, Rep. Dobson received more than $90,000 from January 2017 through June 2020 in government payments to support his expenses for housing, meals and travel connected with legislative meetings in Raleigh and elsewhere, but those expenses were largely paid by his campaign committee, not by Dobson.

For example, the complaint said Dobson collected more than $18,000 for mileage, even though his campaign paid $17,091 for his “gas” over the 42-month period, or more than $400 a month.

Dobson, who is from McDowell County, also charged the government more than $50,000 for housing while attending legislative meetings, but his campaign paid $49,622 for his Raleigh apartment’s rent, furnishing and utilities and for hotel rooms in Raleigh after he moved out of the apartment in 2019.

“You can call what he’s been doing double dipping or stealing public money or whatever, but it seems clearly unethical and a violation of the law against using your public office for private gain,” said Bob Hall, who has filed complaints against Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Hall’s complaint against Rep. Torbett says he received more than $85,000 in government payments for his Raleigh lodging, meals and travel from 2017 to mid-2020, even though his campaign committee actually paid nearly the same amount for those expenses – $84,122.

The Torbett campaign committee, not Rep. Torbett, paid $65,902 for the year-round rent and utilities for his Raleigh apartment, $10,369 for his travel, and $7,851 for nearly 200 payments described on his campaign reports as “Dinner.”

“Rep. Dobson and Rep. Torbett have by far the worst records among all House members for taking money from taxpayers for expenses they didn’t have,” said Hall.

“It’s especially disturbing that Dobson and Torbett continued their practice of double dipping even after the Legislative Ethics Committee sent out clarifying guidelines on May 20, 2020, telling legislators it was unethical and a violation of the state constitution to take housing, meal or travel payments from the General Assembly for expenses being paid by other sources, not by the legislator,” Hall added.

The General Assembly offers legislators $70 for lodging and $34 for meals per day when they attend sessions or legislative meetings, plus 29 cents per mile for travel from their home.

“Some other legislators have abused the system by taking government payments for expenses covered by their campaigns, but no House member has cheated the public in the excessive manner adopted by Dobson and Torbett,” Hall noted. “It’s time for the Legislative Ethics Committee to perform its duty – to not just issue memos but take action to punish wrongdoing.”

Hall criticized the committee for failing to act on a complaint he filed in August against Senate leader Phil Berger for similarly charging the General Assembly for his Raleigh housing even though those costs were largely paid by his campaign committee. In fact, as news stories have reported, the campaign was essentially paying the mortgage on a home Berger owned in Raleigh and later sold for a $80,000 profit.

“Because Berger’s campaign stopped making payments for his housing immediately after the ethics committee issued its May guidelines, the committee seemed to forgive his actions prior to May and dismissed my complaint by saying it had no jurisdiction to enforce violations of the state constitution,” Hall said.

“But my complaint also said Berger violated the State Government Ethics Act, specifically NC General Statute 138A-31 which prohibits Sen. Berger from using his public position for private gain. Because he used his position for years to request per-diem housing payments for expenses his campaign actually paid, the ethics committee should have at least declared his earlier actions unethical.”

“The committee must stop making excuses and take more responsibility for enforcing the State Government Ethics Act,” Hall said.

In his complaint filed today, Hall emphasized that Reps. Dobson and Torbett continued to collect government payments for their Raleigh lodging and food after the May memo, even though their campaign committees continued to pay those expenses.  For example, from May 24 to June 30, 2020, Torbett’s campaign paid $1,831 for his Raleigh apartment expenses and Dobson’s campaign paid $2,235 for his stay at Raleigh-area hotels.

Hall noted that Dobson and Torbett have both used their campaigns’ debit cards to pay hundreds of expenses, including some that seem personal. Dobson’s campaign reports show it paid $5,536 for his clothes and dry cleaning and for numerous “gas” payments that are not to service stations. Dobson has served as his campaign’s treasurer since he first ran for the NC House in 2013, and he continues in that role in his campaign for Labor Commissioner.

“It’s possible that these men have violated campaign finance laws by using their campaign accounts as a slush fund for their personal enjoyment,” Hall said.

He also pointed out that personal use of tax-exempt government per diems could violate IRS regulations, as well as violate criminal statutes against theft that would be of interest to a district attorney.

“As this point, I want to just focus on a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Committee,” he said. “I want its members to have the courage to do their duty and not say it’s somebody else jurisdiction or responsibility or find some other excuse to avoid recommending discipline for their peers.”

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