Commentary, News

National publication: NC’s Josh Stein leading a new wave of state AG’s

Attorney General Josh Stein

The Pew Charitable Trusts publication Stateline featured a rather flattering profile of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein today. In When a State Attorney General Takes On a National Fight, What’s He Gunning For?” reporter Elaine Povich highlights Stein as the most visible in a list of top state lawyers who are staking out high profile positions on raft of issues and combating some of the worst acts of the Trump administration.

After listing several matters — including taking on social media giants, robocalling phone companies, e-cigarette makers, housing discrimination and Trump rollbacks of environmental regulations — in which Stein has taken the lead, the article puts it this way:

Stein, 53, has inserted himself into nearly every high-profile action that state attorneys general have taken since he started the job in North Carolina in 2017.

He is emblematic of a new kind of state attorney general — more aggressive, often bipartisan — rising to prominence nationwide. What used to be a relatively high-profile position within a state’s boundaries has become a springboard for publicity across the country.

As politics on the national level becomes more polarized, and with Congress stymied by attention on a presidential impeachment investigation, attention has increasingly turned to the states, where legislatures are primed to act, governors have some real power and attorneys general are stepping up, particularly on consumer issues where the federal government has largely stepped away.

The article notes that Republican AG’s often opposed Obama administration actions, but that today, Stein is widely recognized as leading a similar charge. It also makes plain that Stein seems a likely candidate at some point for higher office:

No one seems more poised to take advantage than Stein, whose activism stands out, even among his peers. Particularly visible is the way he interacts with Republican AGs as well as members of the GOP in his home state. He is one of only a handful of Democratic AGs who must contend with a Republican-dominated legislature.

Stein has used consumer issues to ingratiate himself with North Carolina voters and the GOP-led legislature. Meanwhile, showing that he can fight Trump-led Republican initiatives has boosted his national Democratic profile.

“It is designed to have positive effects and boost their credentials if they have ambitions for higher office, which it is fairly clear that Stein does,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. “He’ll demur, as they usually do, but you might be able to detect it from his eyes.”

Former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, a Democrat who now teaches at Harvard Law School, said fraud “doesn’t have a partisan hat” when attorneys general are going after bad actors. But, he said, Stein and other AGs are “not going to get elected or re-elected based on what they do on robocalls.” They may work across party lines on corporate fraud or consumer protections, but when it comes to election time they usually revert to party positions, he said.

Stein has already announced he will seek re-election in 2020. Click here to read the entire profile and here to listen to a recent extended interview Stein did with Policy Watch for our News and Views radio show that ran yesterday.


The conservative war on NC public school teachers neatly summarized

In case you missed it over the weekend, the good people at the Public School Forum of North Carolina produced an excellent response to the cheapskate teacher pay plan that the General Assembly produced and Gov. Cooper rightfully vetoed.

This is from the statement:

Today, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a ‘mini-budget’ bill passed by the General Assembly in October that would have offered teachers across the state pay raises that are grossly inadequate and do not reflect the tireless commitment North Carolina’s educators make to our children every day. Governor Cooper vetoed the raises at a time when teachers face nearly a decade of actions taken by state lawmakers to dramatically reduce the resources and tools they need to be successful in the classroom.

“The ‘mini-budget’ that was crafted by lawmakers does not value the incredible contributions our teachers make every day in schools across our great state,” said Dr. Michael Priddy, Interim Executive Director, Public School Forum of NC. “We can and must do more to value our teachers who sacrifice so much of their time and resources to educate our youth.”

The General Assembly approved average teacher raises of 3.9% over two years, and 2% raises for non-instructional staff. But additional language in the bill would have given educators a larger raise and a bonus — a clear indicator that we as a state have the resources to invest in our educators — but only if Democrats elected to override Governor Cooper’s veto of the state budget that was passed over the summer.

“Playing politics with teachers’ livelihoods is wrong,” said Priddy. “Given that our state has the resources necessary to invest in our teaching workforce and, by extension, our children, we trust that the Governor’s veto will lead to further negotiations and a proper resolution on teacher raises.”

The Public School Forum believes that it is critical that we as a state have an honest and accurate conversation about teacher pay and what increases in state spending for teacher salaries are necessary to begin to address the massive teacher shortages and inequities in salaries across North Carolina.

Over the past decade, North Carolina has witnessed a steady deprofessionalization of the teaching profession. While teachers have seen some pay increases since the Great Recession, these salary bumps obscure the fact that in many cases they have come at the expense of numerous classroom needs and teacher supports that are essential to student success, leaving our teachers to consider second jobs and/or different careers, and deterring our best and brightest from considering the profession altogether. The list below includes some of what teachers—and, by extension, students—have lost.

  • Loss of 8,000 teacher assistants in elementary classrooms;
  • Insufficient instructional resources and textbooks;
  • Insufficient mental health support personnel;
  • The elimination of longevity pay and master’s pay;
  • The elimination of career status (tenure), which offered teachers due process;
  • The elimination of state funds for professional development; and
  • The elimination of retiree health insurance benefits for teachers hired in 2021 and beyond;

As we stated in our teacher pay report released earlier this year, teaching is one of the most difficult, and undoubtedly the most important professions there is—and for the future of our state and all public schools, North Carolina teachers deserve better.


Berger sends contradictory messages about lobbyists and the UNC Board of Governors

Sen. Phil Berger

Tom Apodaca

In case you missed it, WRAL reported Thursday that former state Senator and current beer and wine industry lobbyist Tom Apodaca had declined an apparent opportunity to serve on the UNC Board of Governors.

This is from reporter Travis Fain’s story:

“I don’t think lobbyists should be on the Board of Governors,” he said.

Apodaca, a Henderson Republican and a key part of Senate leadership before he left the chamber in 2016, started his own lobbying firm shortly after he left the General Assembly. He and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger spoke about the Board of Governors within the last few days.

Apodaca said Berger, R-Rockingham, didn’t offer the seat, but “I didn’t let him.”

“We were talking about it in general, and I said, ‘Boss, I am not interested,'” Apodaca said Wednesday.

Setting aside the weirdness that a) Apodaca apparently saw no problem in serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of Western Carolina University while employed as a lobbyist (something he did for a five month stint according to the story) and b) a lobbyist calling the Senate leader “boss,” here’s the real kicker in the story:

Berger spokesman Pat Ryan confirmed that Apodaca and Berger discussed the vacancy.

“Senator Berger and former Senator Apodaca both agreed that a lobbyist should not be appointed to fill the existing vacancy, although Senator Berger said former Senator Apodaca would make an excellent member,” Ryan said in an email.

You got that? Berger agrees that it would be a bad idea to appoint a lobbyist to the Board of Governors.

To which, all a body can say is: a) good for the Senator, and b) what the heck?

It’s great to hear Berger throwing shade on the idea of lobbyists serving on the board, but that didn’t stop him from advancing lobbyists in the past. There are at least four registered lobbyists on the board right now (not to mention numerous other well-connected politicos). Two lobbyists — the highly controversial Tom Fetzer and Thom Goolsby — were put on the board by the Senate that Berger runs.

Perhaps Berger is parsing his words by saying that he doesn’t think a lobbyist should “fill the existing vacancy,” but if that’s his story he’s slicing the baloney pretty darn thin (much as he has done with his recently exposed scheme to profit from campaign contributions that he’s using to buy a house in Raleigh).

The bottom line: Apodaca may be an affable guy, but he and Berger are absolutely right that he doesn’t belong on the Board of Governors, and the same is true of all other lobbyists. Now that he has had this apparent conversion, Berger should seek the resignations of Goolsby, Fetzer and the others and work to open a new chapter for UNC.


Berger needs to reel in the Trump-like talk from his staff

Phil Berger

Dylan Watts – Image: Twitter

As reported in this space yesterday, veteran North Carolina government watchdog Bob Hall has raised some very serious questions about the use of campaign funds by state Senate leader Phil Berger. In a complaint to the state Board of Elections, Hall has pointed out that Berger has been paying himself “rent” from his campaign funds that he is then, by all indications, using to purchase real property — most notably a townhouse in Raleigh on which he took out a mortgage in 2016. In other words, Berger pretty clearly appears to be profiting directly and personally via the redirection of campaign funds.

This is clearly a misuse of such funds and something that ought to be investigated by the board. (As an aside, it ought also to be unlawful too for politicians to rent Raleigh abodes from anyone with campaign funds, but that’s a debate for another day.)

Unfortunately, rather than taking the matter seriously and acting like an adult, Berger has apparently empowered a staffer to launch gutter-level character attacks on Hall. This is from a story on the matter in Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“This is just another example of Bob Hall being a bottom-feeder and a scumbag,” [Berger aide Dylan] Watts said.

Memo to the young Mr. Watts and his boss: Neither one of you can hold a candle to the integrity, class, work ethic or dedication to his state that Bob Hall exudes just getting up in the morning and firing up his laptop.

Bob Hall

Bob Hall (a nationally-recognized “MacArthur Foundation genius”) is a North Carolina treasure. He is the man who helped call out the corruption of former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black and he is personally responsible for many of the political ethics laws in this state. More to the point, he is a man of deep faith and commitment to justice who has dedicated several decades of his life to selflessly serving his fellow human beings. For Berger to permit a clearly-uninformed junior staffer to attempt (however unsuccessfully) to smear Hall with Trump-like language is an embarrassment to Berger and the high office he holds.

Both Berger and his acolyte owe Hall an immediate apology. Even more importantly, Berger ought to own up to his self-enriching behavior, stop profiting personally from campaign contributions and pay back the money.


Board of Elections complaint offers damning picture of NC Senate leader’s sketchy business dealings

Senator Phil Berger

Veteran North Carolina government watchdog Bob Hall — the man who helped bring down former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black — let loose another bombshell this morning. In a meticulously researched complaint to the state Board of Elections (click here to read the complaint and here to read the accompanying documents), Hall details the convoluted and possibly unlawful process by which North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has been amassing personal wealth through the use of funds from his campaign.

The details of Berger’s operation read like a miniature version of a self-dealing Donald Trump investment scheme, but what they boil down to is pretty simple: Berger appears to have been paying himself “rent” from his campaign funds that he is using to purchase real property — most notably a townhouse in Raleigh on which he took out a mortgage in 2016.

This is from Hall’s complaint:

  • On May 19, 2016, Philip E. Berger and his wife Patricia H. Berger purchased a townhouse at 1535 Yarborough Park Drive, Raleigh, for $250,000.
  • On May 19, 2016, Phil and Patricia Berger signed a Deed of Trust with NewBridge Bank for a mortgage loan of $224,910 for the Yarborough Park Drive townhouse. The deed says the initial interest rate of 3.875% will become an adjustable rate after June 1, 2023; the full loan, with interest, is payable by June 1, 2046.
  • The May 19, 2016, loan agreement with NewBridge Bank includes a “Second Home Rider,” signed by Phil and Patricia Berger, which says, “Borrower shall occupy, and shall only use, the Property as Borrower’s second home. Borrower shall keep the Property available for Borrower’s exclusive use and enjoyment at all times, and shall not subject the Property to any timesharing or other shared ownership arrangement or to any rental pool or agreement that requires Borrower either to rent the Property or give a management firm or any other person any control over the occupancy or use of the Property.” (emphasis added)
  • On June 25, 2016, Phil Berger’s attorney Steven B. Long filed Articles of Organization with the NC Secretary of State for YPD Properties, LLC. Its principal office is located at Berger’s law firm office address in Eden. In subsequent annual filings with the Secretary of State, Philip E. Berger is identified as YPD’s manager and YPD’s business is describes as “property management.” YPD apparently stands for Yarborough Park Drive.
  • On August 8, 2016, the Philip E. Berger Committee sent $4,500 to YPD Properties at the Berger law firm address for a purpose described as “Holding Public Office Expenses.”
  • Thereafter, in the first few days of each month, the campaign sent $1,500 to YPD properties. The payments of $1,500 per month have continued all 12 months of the year, through the most recent campaign disclosure report that ended June 30, 2019. The initial $4,500 payment apparently covered $1,500 per month for June, July and August of 2016.
  • The purpose of the 24 monthly payments to YPD Properties in 2017 and 2018 is not provided on the campaign disclosure reports. “Rent” is the purpose given for the most recent six payments of $1,500, from January to June, 2019. (Does the arrangement to have YPD Properties pay “rent” for the townhouse violate the mortgage loan stipulation against renting the property?)
  • Thus far, from August 2016 through June 2019, Berger’s campaign has sent a total of $55,500 to YPD Properties.
  • It’s not clear whether YPD Properties is paying down the mortgage loan directly, or paying $1,500 each month to Phil Berger, or doing something else. On his Statements of Economic Interests since 2017, Berger lists himself as “Member/Manager” of YPD properties and also says he files a K-1 tax form with the IRS for income received from YPD Properties for “property management.”

Upon information and belief, by following the money from campaign contributors to YPD Properties to Phil Berger, it seems apparent that Berger is using his campaign for personal profit – for substantial financial gain and for acquiring a capital asset.

The bottom line: Berger pretty clearly appears to be profiting directly and personally via the redirection of campaign funds and this ought not to be permitted. As Hall notes,”Unless the State Board of Elections takes action, politicians will continue to profit handsomely by funneling campaign contributions to themselves, directly or indirectly, to pay for inflated expenses and subsidized assets.”

The board should take swift action to investigate such an important and likely, precedent-setting matter.

Click here to read Hall’s complaint and here to see the accompanying documents.