Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Watchdog Bob Hall raises new questions in Moore poultry deal

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

Public watchdog Bob Hall is raising attention about House Speaker Tim Moore’s land deal with a poultry company in Siler City owned by one of his major political donors.

Hall wrote a letter and memo this morning to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Director Kim Westbrook Strach raising new questions for consideration as they continue to investigate the situation and examine the merits of the complaints filed by the Campaign for Accountability.

“To summarize and make the situation clear: The public is rightly suspicious when prominent politicians or their partners appear to profit handsomely from business deals with their major political donors,” Hall wrote. “In this case, Speaker Moore’s Southeast Land Holdings LLC bought a piece of property for $85,000 and three years later sold it for $550,000 to Mr. Cameron’s poultry company — and the only value added in those three years appears to result from Speaker Moore and his staff pushing state regulators to bypass standard procedures and reclassify the property to benefit SLH and Cameron’s company. The $465,000 price increase for the property seems excessively generous and even corrupt because it’s paid by a major donor to the Speaker’s House caucus and it’s tied to government favoritism resulting from the Speaker’s official status and staff actions.”

The Washington D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint recently calling on state officials to investigate whether Moore acted improperly to seek preferential treatment from state regulators. You can read more about that here.

Hall’s memo to investigative leaders includes a list of prior political donations from Ronald Cameron, of Little Rock, Ark., to Moore. Cameron owns Mountaire Corp., the nation’s seventh largest poultry company.

“Cameron has been a prolific donor to Republican candidates and causes for many years,” Hall explains in the memo. “His company has had operations in North Carolina since it purchased the Piedmont Poultry processing plant in Lumber Bridge in 1996, but Cameron only started making substantial political donations in the state in 2014. From July 1, 2014 to December 31, 2018, he contributed nearly $1 million to influence elections in North Carolina.”

Read the full memo below.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Amid Barr confirmation hearings, former N.C. judges call for “fair and impartial” Russia investigation

A screen grab of William Barr at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and former state Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Arnold are old enough to remember the issues and debacle surrounding Watergate — they also grew up during the Cold War and understand well the threats imposed on a democratic system.

They said during a Tuesday teleconference that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next U.S. attorney general, William Barr, was of utmost importance in light of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the administration’s relationship with Russia.

“The public should be able to believe the legal process and procedures we’re going through with here is going to be fair and impartial, and to be fair and impartial, it has to be independent,” Arnold said.

Barr, if confirmed, would succeed Jeff Sessions. He served as both attorney general and deputy attorney general during George H.W. Bush’s administration. He has openly condemned the Mueller investigation, and he’s been criticized by Democrats for his views on everything from executive power to immigration and mass incarceration.

Orr said the protection of Mueller’s investigation needed to be a top priority for any attorney general in this administration. He said there was an extraordinary external threat and the investigation needs to be full and thorough.

“I have absolute faith and confidence in Robert Mueller and his team, in the law enforcement and intelligent communities that serve this country,” he added.

There are a number of ways an attorney general could impede Mueller’s investigation, including by limiting the resources available, having improper communications and not releasing the final report to the public. The latter seems hard to conceive of though, Orr and Arnold said.

“I think the ultimate question that continues to crop up: Where does his loyalty lie?” Orr said of Barr, adding that loyalty should first be to the oath and to the people of U.S., not to the president. “I think that we have to operate on a degree of trust that someone in Mr. Barr’s potential capacity as attorney general has to understand their oath and responsibilities.”

Susanna Hailey, of Law Works, who hosted the teleconference, said Barr’s nomination was the most significant since former President Richard Nixon’s nomination of Elliot Richardson, a former U.S. attorney general who opted to resign when Nixon ordered for him to interfere in the Watergate investigation.

A recent poll by Law Works — a group that “engages bipartisan voices and educates the public on the importance of the rule of law, the role of the special counsel in the justice system, and the integrity of our judicial institutions” — found 81 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Republicans, believe “Trump should not be allowed to pick the person who investigates him because the investigation needs to be independent and not controlled by the person who is being investigated.”

Hailey said Trump, through his actions has said he wants an attorney general who will undermine Mueller’s investigation.

The Senate hearing is underway today. You can watch it live here.

Courts & the Law, News

NC impacted by two court rulings involving social media, birth control

North Carolina was affected by two broad court rulings in the past week — one making it unconstitutional for elected officials to block constituents on social media and another blocking Trump administration rules that would make it easier for companies to opt out of providing women with no-cost birth control.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed First Amendment constitutional rights in a Virginia case involving the Loudoun County Chair of the Board of Supervisors, Phyllis Randall, who blocked a constituent from a Facebook page she administered.

“Although neither the Supreme Court nor any Circuit has squarely addressed whether, and in what circumstances, a governmental social media page — like the Chair’s Facebook page — constitutes a public forum, aspects of the Chair’s Facebook page bear the hallmarks of a public forum,” the opinion states. “Randall ‘intentionally open[ed the public comment section of the Chair’s Facebook page] for public discourse.'”

The landmark opinion — which applies only to states in the Fourth Circuit; North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia — compares a social media forum to a town hall forum.

Specifically, the court recognized that when a public official uses a Facebook page as a tool of governance — that is, when she uses it to inform the public about her government work, solicits input on policy issues through the page, and swathes it ‘in the trappings of her office’ — she is controlling the page as a government actor,” states Vera Eidelman, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “And if she opens that page to public comment, the interactive space of the Facebook page constitutes a public forum. The fact that the page exists on a website owned by a private company doesn’t change that.”

Eidelman wrote a blog post after the ruling. The ACLU had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the person who brought the lawsuit, Brian Davison, represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute (the same organization that has also filed a similar lawsuit against President Donald Trump for blocking critics on social media).

Numerous elected officials in North Carolina have blocked critics online, as the News & Observer reported. Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, told the newspaper this week that Berger’s office is working on new social media guidelines that address this court ruling and other issues, and hopes to have them ready by the end of the month, when the legislature returns to Raleigh.

*****

In an unrelated case, a judge in California on Sunday blocked Trump administration rules, which would allow more employers to opt out of providing women with no-cost birth control, from taking effect in 13 states, including North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press reported that Judge Haywood Gilliam granted a request for a preliminary injunction by California, 12 other states and Washington, D.C. The plaintiffs sought to prevent the rules from taking effect as scheduled on Monday while a lawsuit against them moved forward.

The changes would allow more employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing no-cost contraceptive coverage to women by claiming religious objections. Some private employers could also object on moral grounds.

California and the other states argue that women would be forced to turn to state-funded programs for birth control and experience unintended pregnancies.

The case remains ongoing.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Anita Hill: #MeToo movement breathing life into MLK strategy for inclusiveness

Anita Hill spoke Thursday night at Elon University and addressed the #MeToo movement and how it was relevant to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Everyone always asks Anita Hill if she knew in 1991 what she knows now, would she testify again about her allegations of sexual harassment by Judge Clarence Thomas?

“The answer is always yes,” she told a crowd Thursday night at Elon University. “This is not the life I had thought I was going to have, but at this point in my life, and I’m quoting the words of Shirley Chisholm, I realize that I was then and now and will always be a catalyst for change, and with your help I will continue to make sure I do everything in my power I make that change happen.”

Hill delivered the this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative address at the university. She quoted from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and said the #MeToo social justice movement was breathing new life into his words.

Anita Hill spoke to a full room Thursday at Elon University. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” she read. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

King’s strategy, Hill said, was inclusiveness — he informed the world about how the oppression experienced by the African-American community was affecting everyone directly and indirectly.

“And so, we shouldn’t miss that point,” she added. “By seeking racial inclusion and community, Dr. King was arguing that we could move ahead if we understood how we were all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

The idea of community continues to resonate in today’s #MeToo movement, which is shedding light on the experiences of women who have been sexually harassed or abused. Hill said that when Tarana Burke coined the phrase, she made clear that she chose it to signal the start of a larger conversation to be shared among survivors and to trigger a movement of radical community healing.

“Not just individual healing, but community healing,” she said. “The kind of healing that Dr. King was talking about.”

A belief that a movement can and should reach beyond the directly oppressed was key to King’s success, and Hill said it’s just as critical today when divisiveness and isolation pose as solutions to pressing social problems.

“Maybe even more critical today, when those people argue that the way for us to move ahead in society is to separate, when in fact, divisiveness and isolation are the problems or at least the causes of many of our problems,” she said.

Hill had no idea that Americans would re-live the moment a woman had to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences of being allegedly sexually harassed by a then potential Supreme Court justice, and that just like in her case, he would still be confirmed.

She was candid about her feelings during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, where Christine Blasey Ford opened herself up to be criticized by politicians and strangers alike. She understood what was happening, and she felt the pain that many did at the time and lost sleep over the horrifying stories, but she also remained hopeful.

Anita Hill encouraged to lift up social movements that affect change, like the #MeToo movement. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“People will say, ‘have we learned nothing since 1991?’ and I would say, ‘we have learned a lot since 1991,'” Hill said. “Maybe the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee have not learned a lot, but we have. And I want you to rest assured that those 27 years meant something, and they are going to mean even more now that we realize how tenuous our situations can be. We will not go back.”

She said that people need to recommit to a simple idea: that women and girls are entitled to work, be educated and to live free of sexual violence.

Threats to the movement, she explained, include erasing history and denying gender violence and having a government that when presented with a chance to do better still replicates mistakes from the past. She said justice must not be rationed and that people should hold ups effective movements when they effect change. There have to be cultural changes.

“I’m confident, because I’ve seen the energy that’s out there, and we can and we will have a movement with lasting impact,” Hill said.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Could Thomas Farr be re-nominated for federal judgeship? Tillis hopes so

Thomas Farr

Thomas Farr’s nomination last year to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ended because of concerns about his ties to voter suppression, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be re-nominated this year.

McClatchy reported from Washington that new Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham will meet for the first time this year with White House officials to discuss the fate of judicial nominees that languished in the previous Congress, including Farr.

At the meeting, “we’re gonna kind of go through the list and see who to renominate, what problems there might be, that kind of stuff,” Graham, R-South Carolina, told McClatchy. Graham officially became committee chairman Wednesday.

Last year, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only black Republican, determined Farr’s involvement in a voter suppression strategy in the 1990 reelection campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, was disqualifying.

At that point, the Senate had 51 Republicans, meaning Farr could only afford to lose two votes if the Senate’s 47 Democrats and two independents opposed him, as expected. Then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, on the verge of retirement, also said he would oppose Farr.

Democrats and civil rights groups cheered Scott’s decision and what appeared to be the end of Farr’s chances to win a lifetime judicial appointment: Though his nomination was never formally withdrawn, Farr had been tainted with accusations of racist activity.

Yet Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, said this week he was still looking into whether he would push to have Farr, who has longstanding ties with Republicans in the state, re-nominated.

All judicial nominees that were pending in the previous legislative session must be re-nominated by President Donald Trump to the new Congress that was seated last week if the judges are to be confirmed.

“We’re looking at it right now,” Tillis told McClatchy of Farr.

The White House has not commented on its deliberations.

Trump nominated Farr in July 2017 and then re-nominated him in January 2018. The judicial vacancy he could fill is the longest running one across the nation at over 11 years.

Civil rights leaders have been outspoken in their opposition to Farr’s confirmation, particularly to the Eastern District of North Carolina, which houses almost half of the state’s Black population, but has never had a Black federal judge there in the District Court’s 145-year history.

Former President Barack Obama nominated two accomplished and experienced Black women to fill the vacancy, Jennifer May-Parker and Patricia Timmons-Goodson. N.C. Sen. Richard Burr blocked both nominations.

Read the full McClatchy article on Farr’s potential re-nomination here.