Sen. Berger announces appointments to Ag, Enviro committees, responsible for Farm Act, other key measures

Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer, will co-chair that chamber’s Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee (Photo: NCGA)

Norm Sanderson, Brent Jackson and Chuck Edwards will lead the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee this year, Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger announced today.

The 14-member committee includes eight Republicans and six Democrats. The Farm Act, clean energy legislation, environmental bills and regulatory reform measures pass through this committee. For example, the committee took up part of a 2019 bill that would have allowed local governments to dump toxic electronics in landfills; it failed. While under GOP leadership, the committee has previously supported relaxing regulations on hog farms  and opposed oversight of the proliferation of poultry operations, most of which operate essentially unchecked.

Republicans: Lisa Stone Barnes, Jim Burgin, David Craven, Steve Jarvis, Tom McInnis, Paul Newton, Dean Proctor and Bob Steinburg

Democrats: Don Davis, Toby Fitch, Michael Garrett, Jeff Jackson, Natalie Murdock and DeAndrea Salvador

Berger also appointed members to the Appropriations on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources, which oversees budget recommendations in those areas. That includes the NC Department of Environmental Quality, whose budget lawmakers have decimated over the past decade.

Republicans: Chairmen Norman Sanderson, Todd Johnson and Chuck Edwards; members Lisa Stone Barnes, Tom McInnis and Paul Newton,

Democrats: Natasha Marcus, Julie Mayfield, Mujtaba Mohammed, and DeAndrea Salvador

Open letter: Political scientists call for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment

A growing list of more than 1,000 political scientists asked Congress, Vice President Mike Pence and cabinet members to remove President Trump from office by invoking the 25th Amendment, amplifying voices of some lawmakers from both parties and industry groups demanding the same.

“The President’s actions show he is unwilling or unable to fulfill his oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” wrote signatories of the letter after rioting Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday.

The 25th Amendment has never been invoked, and is viewed as a last resort or safety net when a sitting president cannot fulfill their job duties.

A mob broke into the Senate chamber during certification of the Electoral College votes, forcing members of Congress to evacuate. Many lawmakers, including the North Carolina delegation condemned their violence.

Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawaba College, courtesy photo

“The protesters yesterday, until they climbed the steps, went past the barricades were also exercising their first amendment rights,” said Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawaba College. “They gave up those rights when they started breaking glass and busting down doors and climbing over walls and entering the chambers, as they did.”

Bitzer noted it was the first time he has ever signed an open letter, which symbolizes many political scientists “speaking with one voice and saying that enough is enough”.

President Trump spoke to his supporters earlier in front of the White House and tweeted voter fraud claims throughout Wednesday morning. After the Capitol breach, he then urged them to remain peaceful in a video he posted on Twitter, “We have to have peace; We have to have law and order.” But in the same video, he still said “we have an election that was stolen from us”. Twitter later disabled the viewing of the content.

Bob Orr, former North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice called Trump’s gesture “too late and insincere”.

“We have never had a chief executive call for and instigate an insurrection or seditious activity like what we saw yesterday,” Bitzer added that Trump also took no initiative to protect the duly-elected members of Congress. “When one branch is under attack physically it is the duty of the commander in chief to ensure that that violence is put down that commander in chief failed yesterday.”

A Republican himself, Orr said the GOP has continued to enable Trump and his supporters to engage in conspiracy theories, spread hatred and instigate violence ever since he started to run for office. Orr explained what angered him the most was that many Republicans continued to contest the election results as if nothing had happened Wednesday night.

“Any elected official for sure needs to be held accountable to the laws of the country and the constitutional limitations on them, and when they violate them they need to pay the consequences,” Orr said. “For four years, Donald Trump … has gotten away with all sorts of violations of the law and breaches of the Constitution in my opinion, and we will see what happens next.”

Former NC House minority leader gets judicial appointment

Gov. Roy Cooper announced he is appointing Rep. Darren Jackson to the NC Court of Appeals to fill the seat left vacant by Phil Berger Jr. Berger was elected to the state Supreme Court last month.

Jackson served six terms in the NC House and was minority leader for two terms. He

represented House District 39 in eastern Wake County.

“Darren Jackson has spent his legal career fighting for a more fair and just North Carolina,” Cooper said in a statement. “His decades of experience as a lawyer and elected public servant have prepared him for the bench, and I’m grateful for his willingness to continue serving our state with honor.”

Sen. Sam Searcy of Holly Springs, who was elected to his second term last month, is resigning.

“Recently an unexpected opportunity to serve NC presented itself,” he said on Twitter.

Searcy said on Twitter that he wants Sydney Batch to fill his seat.

Batch served one term in the NC House before losing reelection last month to represent House District 37, which covers the southwest corner of Wake County.

Racial Task Force recommendation: Decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession

Photo: Getty images.

North Carolina’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has adopted recommendations that include decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, and further studying the  potential legalization, cultivation, and sale of marijuana.

The task force, established last July by Gov. Roy Cooper,  is co-chaired by Attorney General Josh Stein and state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls.

“You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana,” said Stein in a statement from his office.

“White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced. Additionally, it is time for North Carolina to start having real conversations about a safe, measured, public health approach to potentially legalizing marijuana.”

North Carolina’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice met virtually and voted on the recommendations Wednesday.

“Data made available to the Task Force shows that 63 percent of the more than 10,000 convictions for simple possession of marijuana last year in North Carolina are people of color even though they are only 30 percent of the population and research documents that marijuana use is at roughly equal percentages among Black and white populations,” said Justice Anita Earls.

Earls said the recommendation is intended to help alleviate long-standing racial disparities in North Carolina’s criminal justice system.

Last year there were more than 31,000 charges and 8,520 convictions for possession of up to ½ ounce of marijuana. Sixty-one percent of those who were convicted were nonwhite.

Other recommendations that will be presented to Governor Cooper in a report December 15th include:

  • The Task Force further recommends that North Carolina convene a Task Force of stakeholders, free from conflict of interest, to study the pros and cons and options for legalization of possession, cultivation and/or sale, including government or not for profit monopoly options. The study should be guided by a public safety, public health, and racial equity framework.
  • Improve drug enforcement data collection and reporting by:
    • Requiring every law enforcement agency to participate fully in the NIBRS system
    • Requiring every law enforcement agency to publish drug enforcement data on its department website in easy searchable fashion, including number of arrests and citations by drug, quantity, race, gender, and reason for search. This may necessitate providing additional resources to law enforcement agencies, especially smaller agencies.
  • Deemphasize (or make the lowest drug law enforcement priority) felony drug possession arrests for trace quantities under .25 grams in non-ABC permitted locations.
  • Deemphasize (or make the lowest drug law enforcement priority) marijuana possession arrests in non-ABC permitted locations.
  • Prosecutors should immediately deprioritize marijuana-related prosecution in non-ABC permitted locations.

The North Carolina General Assembly will convenes for the long 2021 session on January 31. It’s unclear if they will move forward with these recommendations.

Federal court documents detail allegations of Rep. David Lewis’s elaborate scheme

Former State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican (Photo: NCGA)

2018 was a bad year for Rep. David Lewis. 2020 looks to be worse.

The federal government today alleged that State Rep. David Lewis with failure to file a tax return, making false statements to a bank and illegally funneling campaign money for personal use. He was charged with criminal felonies, according to court records.

Lewis, a Republican who had represented Harnett County in the House since 2002, also resigned his legislative seat today.

The first criminal allegation against Lewis centers on two bank accounts in which he illegally funneled campaign money to a personal account under a fake name.

According to court documents, on  July 31, 2018, Lewis opened a campaign account, which he later used to make legal contributions to the state Republican Party. However, that day he had his campaign treasurer cut a check for $50,000, payable to “NCGOP.”

But the next day on Aug. 1, 2018, Lewis opened a second account at a different bank, under the name “NC GOP, Inc.” He allegedly lied to the bank that NC GOP, Inc. was a certified legal entity registered with the NC Secretary of State, and that he was the president of the organization. But no such organization existed.

Instead of sending the $50,000 check payable to “NCGOP” to the actual state Republican Party, he allegedly deposited it in his own NC GOP, Inc. account.

The same day Lewis wrote a $47,600 check from the NC GOP, Inc, account payable to Lewis Farms, his primary business. He also wrote a check for $2,050, payable to the landlord of his residence, according to court documents.

Two weeks later, Lewis allegedly used the same ruse — paying money from his campaign to his personal account NC GOP, Inc., while reporting it on his campaign finance reports as a contribution to the state Republican Party. This time, though, he used a cashier’s check, worth $15,000. That money went to yet a third bank account for Lewis Farms.

Later, Lewis actually made contributions to the state GOP for $50,000 and $15,000 from his personal accounts, which could have been an attempt to appear to comply with campaign finance law.

Lewis also allegedly failed to pay his federal taxes on farm income generated in 2018. His gross income that year was at least $84,200, court records say.

If convicted, Lewis could be forced to forfeit “property derived from proceeds traceable to the offense.” That would include a fine equivalent to the amount of his back taxes, but the there could be additional penalties.

His attorney filed a plea agreement today, but the document is not public.