Commentary, Legislature, News

Government watchdog claims in new filing that Phil Berger broke state law with Raleigh townhouse payments

Longtime NC government watchdog Bob Hall

Bob Hall—government watchdog, ex-political journalist, and, according to one ludicrous GOP aide, reputed “bottom feeder” and “scumbag”—is pacing outside of the high-rise, downtown Raleigh condominiums that Sen. Phil Berger haunts when he’s in town.

The building, which is several blocks from the state legislature, is fronted by a dress shop and brewery. This dusty intersection hums with construction as insectile cranes lug materials for nearby mixed-use developments.

Hall, sporting a shaggy, grey beard, doesn’t look so much like a scumbag, more like a modestly annoyed philosophy professor. In his hands, he holds an official complaint he filed this afternoon with the General Assembly’s Legislative Ethics Commission, alleging that Berger “unethically transferred” $73,500 of campaign donors’ money to himself when he used it to pay the mortgage on a recently-sold north Raleigh townhouse he co-owned with his wife.

There’s no podium today, very little press assemblage, no fanfare, just Hall making major claims against NC’s most influential state lawmaker, a Rockingham County Republican who holds a throttle-grip on the Senate and, indeed, virtually every piece of legislation with any hope of passing in North Carolina.

Hall raised similar questions in November with a complaint to the State Board of Elections, questioning the use of campaign dollars.

NC officials have used campaign cash to pay rent on their homes-away-from-home before, Hall says, but it’s not proper for Berger to spend donors’ money on a property he owns. “That’s an investment,” Hall told Policy Watch Wednesday.

“He’s the most powerful legislator in the state, if not the most powerful politician,” Hall said. “He’s setting an example, and it’s a bad one. He needs to be stopped.”

NC Sen. Phil Berger

According to the complaint, the Republican state lawmaker and his wife, Patricia Berger, bought the Yarborough Park Drive townhouse in May 2016 for $250,000, signing off on a mortgage loan worth almost $225,000. In June 2016, Berger’s attorney filed the articles of incorporation for YPD Properties, LLC with Berger its manager.

From August 2016 through December 2019—when the Bergers sold the townhouse—the lawmaker’s campaign sent monthly payments to YPD Properties, most of them characterized as rent. The payments totaled $73,500.  Last September, the Bergers purchased a space in this West North Street condo downtown.

In other words, Hall says, Sen. Berger used one hand to pay the other, pointing out the legislator lists himself as a “member/manager” paying taxes on his income from YPD Properties on his Statement of Economic Interest (SEI), an annual report intended to prevent potential conflicts of interest for public officials.

Berger’s office, which almost never responds to Policy Watch inquiries, did not answer Wednesday afternoon when asked for comment. However, in a November News & Observer report, an aide to Berger slammed Hall for the elections board complaint, characterizing the ex-head of Democracy NC, a non-partisan government reform organization, as a partisan. For reference’s sake, Hall’s work cratered ex-state House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat, more than a decade ago over allegations of corruption.

Hall’s latest complaint, which was filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee—a bipartisan panel of Republicans and Democrats—says Berger violated state General Statute 138A-31, which states that a legislator “shall not knowingly use [his or her] public position in an official action or legislative action that will result in financial benefit” for the lawmaker or their family.

It cites Berger’s alleged “unethical and corrupt conduct … in manipulating submissions to the State Board of Elections in order to personally gain tens of thousands of dollars for himself.”

Hall is asking the legislative committee to censure Berger for his “use of public office for private gain.”

The complaint notes the Bergers sold the townhouse to T. Tate Apodaca, a lobbyist and son of former Republican state senator Tom Apodaca, although it points out the asking price was comparable to other sales in the development.

Hall goes on to list what he suggests may be a second violation of state law:

Because these cleverly manipulated “rent” payments provided Sen. Berger with $73,500 toward the $250,000 purchase price of the YPD townhouse, his actual cost was closer to $176,500. Consequently, when lobbyist Tate Apodaca paid $330,000 for the townhouse, he helped Sen. Berger reap a profit in excess of $150,000 ($330,000 minus $176,500), which is far above the $80,000 average market price increase from 2016 to 2019 for properties in that development – and, therefore, arguably a handsome gift from the lobbyist, in violation of NCGS 138A-32. While this conclusion may seem like a stretch of the law, it’s important for the Committee to recognize that the public perception of Sen. Berger’s profit-taking, with the help of a lobbyist, can harm the reputation of all legislators if corrective action is not taken.

Policy Watch will keep you apprised of the complaint as it proceeds.

Commentary, Trump Administration

Donald Trump’s budget a study in cruelty

President Donald Trump (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ever miss “compassionate conservatism?”

The label, often used to describe George W. Bush before he was president and before any of his actual policies went into effect, has been out of fashion for some time. Nowadays, it seems, they hardly even fake it.

Indeed, you’re not likely to find much compassionate conservatism in Trump’s budget, which he aimed at the American people Monday. Typical politicians unveil or announce their budgets. Donald Trump “aims” his budgets, which is to say they are not benevolent things.

They are intended to gouge government programs championed by progressives and loathed by conservatives.

As reported by multiple outlets Monday, the federal budget unloaded by Trump rips spending on Medicaid, student loan assistance, public education, environmental regulations, affordable housing initiatives and food stamps.

“We’re doing a lot of things that are good including waste and fraud. Tremendous waste and tremendous fraud,” Trump reportedly told the nation’s governors Monday, which has the unique quality of being nearly indecipherable Trump-braggadocio and a keenly accurate jeer of the Trump White House at the same time.

It’s often said that it’s better to pay attention to what Trump does and not what Trump says. That goes for virtually any political leader, but especially so for Trump. Because a budget is an explicit statement of his intentions, and Trump’s intentions are often buried beneath a topsoil of lies.

Case in point, Medicare, as many observers pointed out Monday:

Beyond the Trump administration’s fabrications, what does this budget say? It says that Donald Trump does not believe in any view of a compassionate United States.

Keep reading for a brief overview of the Trump spending plan from The N.Y. Times:

The White House budget is largely a messaging document that reflects the administration’s spending priorities and has little chance of being enacted in full by Congress. While Monday’s proposal is similar to the president’s previous requests, it is a stark contrast with the leading Democratic rivals for the White House, who have proposed large tax increases on the rich and expansions of government efforts to provide health care, education, affordable housing and aid for the poor.

For instance, at a time when many Democratic candidates are proposing sweeping efforts to forgive student loan debt and make some or all public colleges tuition-free, Mr. Trump’s budget again recommends eliminating subsidized federal student loans and ending the public service loan program, an incentive for teachers, police officers, government workers and other public servants that cancels their remaining federal student loans after a decade of payments. Those proposals were in last year’s budget; Congress failed to adopt them. Read more

Commentary, Trump Administration

Editorial: Thom Tillis, Richard Burr “violate their oaths” in Trump impeachment trial

Sen. Thom Tillis, left, and Sen. Richard Burr, right

We wrote last week about Richard Burr and Thom Tillis’s cadre of failings, two men who, if we believe their muddled justifications, must be two of the more myopic senators this state has ever sent to Washington, D.C.

Their arguments for acquitting President Donald Trump, almost a sure thing at this point, only make sense if you’re reading directly from the Republican National Committee’s messaging or if you’re one of Fox News’ inculcated masses.

Otherwise, the president has hardly mustered a defense against the claims that he withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine for his own political gain, just one of a number of impeachable allegations made against the president, a president credibly accused of a campaign finance cover-up and sexual misconduct by a couple dozen women in his lifetime.

Beyond that, a new editorial from Capitol Broadcasting Company says our senators—who both voted against allowing witnesses into Trump’s impeachment trial—joined their GOP cohorts in the Senate in failing to even bluff at offering a fair process.

A reminder, however, that it could be argued impeachment was never about convincing the Republican Party, which has tied its fate irrevocably to Trump. It is centrally about convincing the American public.

From CBC’s editorial:

Take note of what North Carolina’s senators said last week as they rejected hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

From Sen. Richard Burr who leads the Senate’s Intelligence Committee:

From Sen. Thom Tillis:

Tillis seems to forget that Trump stopped witnesses and documents in the House proceedings. How can anyone conclude that there is a “lack of evidence” when you vote to not hear it?

So Burr says the president did it, but it is not impeachable. Tillis says the President did not do it; that there is a lack of evidence and the whole thing is a sham.

Burr and Tillis, jurors who are sworn to “do impartial justice,” voted NOT to hear any witnesses.

We’ve been watching, listening and following the Senate impeachment trial – which really has only been opening and closing statements. REAL trials in the United States include the basics: Calling witnesses who testify and are cross-examined under oath along with the introduction of evidence that seek to prove or exonerate the accused.

Do Burr and Tillis believe the president is free to repeat his Ukraine caper? Is it that Trump can do anything he wants? Do they agree with the absurd logic of Alan Dershowitz: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Burr and Tillis have violated their oaths. This is a trial without evidence.

Commentary, Higher Ed

UNC’s Silent Sam settlement, a bad deal executed very poorly

The Daily Tar Heel, a student-run newspaper, is in the midst of a serious role reversal with the adults over at the UNC Board of Governors.

That much is clear following the paper’s inherently logical suit charging the UNC board violated our state’s open meeting laws when they negotiated a $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to take Silent Sam off their hands, in addition to a $74,999 payment intended to keep its protesters off an already simmering campus.

The paper’s management corporation is asking the court to nullify the agreement, an outcome virtually everyone not currently seated on the UNC Board of Governors or in legislative leadership would prefer at this point.

Boards have the luxury of discussing such matters with their attorneys in private, although it’s another matter for several board members to design and sign a deal in private without even a public notice.

The idea was bad, and the execution was even worse.

Fittingly, WRAL’s Capitol Broadcasting Corp. slammed the university system board in an editorial Tuesday.

The courts should drop this dismal deal, and the UNC Board of Governors—one of North Carolina’s leading lights for humiliation these days—should sit the next few plays out.

From the editorial:

The reporters and editors at the Daily Tar Heel in Chapel Hill have been doing their job in examining the Silent Sam consent agreement between the University of North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governors and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It’s a good thing. They are digging to answer the basics: Who did what, where, when and why.

The DTH has also been working to uncover the how. Did the procedures the UNC Board use follow the state’s Open Meetings Law?

The DTH investigation, so far, raises disturbing questions about a lack of basic due diligence by the board and the university.

The newspaper, a non-profit student-run publication that’s been around for 127 years, has gone to court to nullify the consent agreements. The two deals with the Sons of Confederate Veterans that pays the group $74,999 to not protest on campus and $2.5 million to shelter and display Silent Sam were reached “in total secrecy in violation of the Open Meetings Law.”

In addition, the lack of transparency leads to wonder why and how could a university pay anyone to give up their 1st Amendment rights? It goes against the most basic precepts for freedom of inquiry that quality universities stand for.

Will the university now pay other groups to stay off campus? This deal sets a terrible precedent.

The most basic due-diligence on the part of UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC Board of Governors clearly has been neglected.

The DTH revelations are raising questions about whether the key party to the deal, Sons of Confederate Veterans, violated tax and campaign spending laws. State Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall who oversees non-profits — along with the state Revenue Department and state Board of Elections, all must look into these serious matters.

The rush to approve anything, at any cost, to get rid of the Silent Sam issue has done just the opposite. In fact, Superior Court Judge Allan Baddour, who signed the initial consent judgment and order is reexamining his approval and will be holding a hearing on Feb. 12 to further look into the deal.

It is time for the courts and regulators to say enough-is-enough. Terminate the deal. University officials should be ashamed of themselves.

Commentary

After “emergency” iStation purchase, who is Superintendent Mark Johnson working for?

Last week, Policy Watch’s Greg Childress reported the latest head-scratcher from N.C.’s Department of Public Instruction, where Superintendent Mark Johnson—a very loud lame duck, sort of—ordered the “emergency” purchase of nearly $1 million from iStation to continue offering its reading assessment technology.

The purchase fell afoul of the decision-makers over at the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) again and Johnson’s tortured iStation saga became a little more tortured.

From Childress’ report:

State Superintendent Mark Johnson may have violated state policy when he failed to seek approval from the state’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) before signing an emergency contract with Istation to assess the reading levels of North Carolina’s K-3 students.

As a result, State CIO Eric Boyette may “suspend or cancel” the contract if DPI cannot adequately justify the “emergency purchase” or the “execution of the RFQ (Request for Quotes),” which took place outside of normal business hours.

Johnson made the $928,570 purchase for services late Tuesday. Istation had been implementing its reading assessment program for free, but that arrangement ended Dec. 31.

Johnson cited a state procurement policy that gives agencies the authority to make emergency purchases to prevent the cessation of an important program. Under the policy, such purchases can be made without CIO approval if they’re made after regular business hours.

DPI has been given until 10 a.m., Tuesday to answer five questions about the emergency purchase.

“In the absence of a sufficient amended justification fully responsive to this memorandum and the questions below, the Sate CIO may exercise his authority to under [state law] to cancel or suspend any information technology procurement that occurs without the state CIO’s approval,” Patti Bowers, DIT’s chief procurement officer wrote in a letter to the N.C. Department of Public of Instruction (DPI) and Tymica Dunn, DPI’s procurement manager.

Bower said the Dec. 31 expiration of a “no cost” contract between DPI and Istation did not rise to the level of an emergency.

“Mere expiration of the “no cost” Memorandum of Agreement executed August 27, 2019, does not constitute an emergency sufficient to trigger this purchase authority,” she wrote. “If every contract signed after business hours constituted an emergency, the term would be rendered meaningless.”

The emergency purchase came one day after a superior judge refused to lift a stay to allow DPI to continue to work with Istation. The judge’s ruling left North Carolina without a tool to assess reading levels of its K-3 students.

Even so, Bowers said procurement rules must be followed.

“The Office recognizes that maintaining reading comprehension testing for the state’s children is an urgent matter and that certain statutory obligations exist; however, even the continuation of a vital program does not abrogate the responsibilities of purchasing agencies and the Department of Information Technology,” Bowers wrote.

Whatever the agency feuding at play here, it’s fair to wonder who Johnson is working for with this latest shot off the bow. DIT was right to question whether Johnson’s office was stretching the meaning of “emergency” when they unilaterally moved last week.

And the grandstanding sets up continuing legal battles over the K-3 reading assessments. It’s hard to imagine, given the poisoned process thus far, that the outcome of this decision is not poisoned as well.

DPI has until Tuesday morning to answer DIT’s questions, but when Johnson’s office gets around to responding to those official questions, we’ve got another 100 or so questions, starting with: Who is this decision expected to serve?

Look for updates soon from Policy Watch.