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When the former Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought a way to boost employee’s morale last summer, his agency ordered up several hundred commemorative coins engraved with both his and the agency’s name.

DENR commemorative coin

DENR commemorative coin

The environmental agency spent $1530 in June buying 500 coins engraved with former DENR Secretary John Skvarla’s name etched on them, in addition to the agency logo and the state seal on the back.

The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.

Skvarla left the agency in December at Gov. Pat McCrory’s behest to lead the N.C. Commerce Department. Donald Van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee, how heads the state environmental agency.

John Skvarla

Commerce Sec. John Skvarla (formerly DENR)

A number of the coins, but not all, were handed out to DENR employees as a way for Skvarla to recognize exemplary performance, said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency.

Elliot said he did not know how many of the coins remained. N.C. Policy Watch has requested, but not yet received, a copy of a spreadsheet detailing how the coins were distributed under Skvarla’s leadership.

The $1,530 purchase of the coins this June comes as the agency has had to trim many of its programs and lay off environmental regulators in response to deep budget cuts, including 225 jobs lost between 2011 and 2014, according to this February 2014 news article. Some environmental groups say the cuts have left the state unable to protect its natural resources and prevent future disasters like last year’s toxic coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Challenge coins like the ones ordered by DENR are a well-known tradition in the nation’s military branches, as explained in this Mental Floss article. The coins are sometimes handed out by secret handshakes, as they were during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates who passed them out to servicemen and servicewomen.

Probably one of the most popular uses of the coins in the military is to settle up bar tabs.

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News

A chain of Mexican restaurants with a Jacksonville location is paying more than $50,000 in back wages to employees, after federal authorities discovered some workers weren’t receiving minimum wage.

Pancho Villa Mexican Restaurants, a small chain with one location near the Camp LeJeune Marine Corps Base, was not paying dishwashers and cooks at the federal minimum wage ($7.25), nor was it paying overtime, ac according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The underpayments affected 30 workers from December 2010 to December 2013 at the company’s eight Virginia locations (in Fredericksburg, Culpeper, Dahlgren and Stafford) and its sole North Carolina location at 2121 N. Marine Blvd. in Jacksonville.

Pancho Villa’s owners agreed to pay $57,446 in back wages to 30 employees, as well as a $6,600 fine.

Federal labor officials are looking for former employees of the restaurant. Those affected can all the Wage and Hour Division at (804) 771-2995.

News

state Sen. Tom Apodaca

Longtime lobbyist Paula Wolf rounded up how many pies state Sen. Tom Apodaca has his fingers in over on her blog, Paulatics.

Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who has been in the Senate for 12 years, is known for his off-the-cuff comments as well as influence in the state legislature.

Wolf, who until recently had worked as a lobbyist representing non-profit groups in the legislature, tallied up Apodaca’s current list of responsibilities.

From her blog:

Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville) serves on 12 of the 23 Senate Standing Committees.

  •  He is the sole Chair of 2: Rules and Ways & Means.
  •  He is a Co-Chair of 3: Appropriations on Education/Higher Education, Insurance & Pensions and Retirement.
  •  He is a regular Member of 7: Appropriations on Base Budget, Appropriations on Justice & Public Safety, Commerce, Education/Higher Education, Finance, Judiciary I and Redistricting.

The daily calendar is under his purview as is the general flow of bills. As Rules Chair, Sen. Apodaca decides in which committee bills will be heard, and if they will be heard. It is also up to him whether a bill is debated on the Floor and what day.

His Committee assignments and his leadership responsibilities cover most of the issues expected to be hot this Session.

When you see Sen. Apodaca’s name in the media the word “powerful” will likely be used as a modifier to “Rules Chair” every time. Indeed, he is.

 

News

The UNC Board of Governors convened a summit Tuesday to discuss the future of teaching in the state, as the world of education changes rapidly and the state faces a significant drop in those who want to teach.

The education summit, a public meeting of the UNC Board of Governors held on the SAS campus in Cary and spearheaded by Ann Goodnight, looked at trends in education, as well as methods for the state to reexamine how it prepares new teachers and treats teachers once they’re in classrooms.  Chancellors and education deans across the UNC system attended as well as legislative leaders and State Board of Education members.

UNC President Tom Ross

UNC President Tom Ross

The focus Tuesday was on how to prepare and retain the state’s next generation of teachers, as the state contends with a decline of nearly 30 percent in the last four years in enrollments in the UNC system’s 15 education programs. (Click here to read more about the decline, and what it means for the state.)

“We can do better and we must do better,” UNC President Tom Ross said Tuesday in opening the day-long summit.

North Carolina’s teacher pay, even with raises passed by the legislature last year, remain below the national average, and programs that supported the professions like the N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship program, have been eliminated by state leaders.

As part of the education summit, a subcommittee of the UNC Board of Governor released a seven-point plan Tuesday that had been in the works for a year and attempts to turn around the profession’s high turnover and declining enrollment rates at the UNC system’s education colleges. (Scroll down to read the entire plan.) Read More

News

Stephen LaRoque, the former state representative accused of stealing $300,000 from federally-funded non-profits he ran, entered into a plea deal Monday.

LaRoque-PC

Former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque in 2011.

LaRoque, a Kinston Republican, plead guilty to one count of theft of $150,000 from a program receiving federal funds. The remaining 11 counts he faced will be dismissed, according to the court docket.

LaRoque also agreed to pay back $300,000 in restitution to the non-profit he once led, the East Carolina Development Corporation, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The plea was offered Monday at the federal courthouse in Greenville. No prior announcement of the hearing was made on the docket for LaRoque’s case.

LaRoque, a co-chair of the powerful House Rules Committee, resigned from the legislature in July of 2012, shortly after he was indicted on the federal charges.

His sentencing will be on May 12, at the federal courthouse in Greenville before Senior U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard.

The charge LaRoque plead guilty to holds a maximum punishment of up to 10 years in prison. He could also be ordered to pay a fine of up to $250,000, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

LaRoque had been scheduled to go to trial next week, after convictions a jury handed down in a 2013 trial were set aside because of juror misconduct.

The federal investigation into LaRoque began shortly after a 2011 N.C. Policy Watch investigation that found improprieties in his management of two economic development non-profits that received millions through a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural lending program. The non-profit’s board of directors, which approved generous pay packages for LaRoque, consisted of himself, his wife and brother for several years.

His indictment on federal charges accused him of taking more than $300,000 from the non-profit to buy, amongst other things, a Greenville ice skating rink, replica Faberge eggs, jewelry and cars for his personal use.

Up until Monday, LaRoque had maintained he was innocent of criminal wrongdoing, and that the money he was accused of stealing was owed to him.

Shortly after his indictment, he said he wanted to seek revenge and “make heads roll” at USDA if he managed to get a political appointment heading the state office of the agency he was accused of stealing from.

This post has been changed from the original to correct the maximum fine LaRoque could face, up to $250,000. The post may be updated as further information about Monday’s plea deal is made available.