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, Legislature

Legislative fail: Health care special session

Image: Adobe Stock

When Rachel Radford made the trip to Raleigh Wednesday morning, she was hoping to get the chance to talk with her legislators about expanding Medicaid.

“So many families like mine have the most unappreciated, most overlooked job to care for children who have special abilities,” said Radford, a parent and advocate from Goldsboro NC. “Unfortunately caring for children with special needs is not a job that comes with health insurance. Every parent needs health coverage so that we can survive to care for our children. We need our legislators to pass Medicaid expansion swiftly.”

Unfortunately Rachel’s legislators weren’t there to listen.

Speaker Moore and Senate Pro Tem Berger had called legislators to Raleigh for a “special session” that was supposed to be about health care. That session was called to order on Tuesday morning. Legislators adjourned and left Raleigh the same day with no budget, and no action on health care.

Once again, legislative leaders did not allow any discussion or vote to expand Medicaid – despite the fact that they have a bipartisan bill on the table in HB 655.

More than half a million North Carolinians, including Rachel and her husband, can’t see a doctor when they need one, because reliable health insurance is out of reach. Children need healthy parents by their sides. And children are more likely to have health coverage and get the care they need, when their parents are covered. To drive that point home, in 2018 the number of uninsured children in North Carolina increased for the second year in a row.

House Speaker Tim Moore promised a House vote on the compromise legislation in September, when House members voted to override the Governor’s veto of the state budget.

“I said, we will actually vote on the Carolina Cares Medicaid bill. I’m going to keep my word. We’re going to vote on that bill,” Moore stated in his press conference after the veto override, adding that the vote would take place the following week.

Months later, the House has still not been allowed to vote on the issue, and the Senate has never even discussed it in a committee meeting. Speaking to NC Health News last week, bill sponsor Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) made it clear that Moore and Berger are the ones standing in the way of action on his compromise bill.

“I think the House is in a good position to move it whenever we decide to do that, whenever leadership decides to give me the okay to move forward,” Lambeth said.

Meanwhile thousands of people in every North Carolina county have no access to affordable health coverage. We need legislative leaders to put political games aside and get the job done.

Three-quarters of states have already accepted the federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs. These states are saving money and getting care to those who need it most, according to dozens of peer-reviewed studies. Kansas just announced they will be the latest “red” state to expand Medicaid.North Carolina should be the next.

Adam Sotak is NC Child’s Public Engagement Director. His article initially appeared on the NC Child website.

Commentary, Education, Legislature

Leandro report: Principal pay plan harms high-need schools

This week, the much-anticipated Leandro report by WestEd was finally made public.

The report is the result of a comprehensive, year-long study by non-partisan education consultants appointed by North Carolina’s courts to take a systematic look at whether the state is living up to its constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education” to each child.

It provides a detailed road map for improvements that need to be made to ensure that we are meeting the educational needs of our students, including how we pay our school leaders.

One critical area of need WestEd identified is providing “a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.”  That need echoes existing research which finds that having an effective principal in place is crucial to the success of a school, especially those that serve our most disadvantaged students.  Clearly one of the most important ways we can ensure we have the right principals where they are most needed is through an effective compensation model.

North Carolina’s principal pay system was overhauled in 2017, after our ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation.  The new pay plan, which was crafted with intense lobbying by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, compensates school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year, with overall pay fluctuating accordingly on an annual basis.

The Leandro report finds that North Carolina’s system for paying principals “works against the state’s meeting the requirement of a qualified principal in every school” because it “creates a disincentive for effective principals to work in underperforming schools, which often take more than one year to improve and meet or exceed targets for growth.”  As it currently stands, if a principal who has been rated ‘effective’ moves into a low-performing school, he or she has a very short period of time to bring test scores up before seeing a reduction in salary.

Of principals who were surveyed for the Leandro study, 24% said that, as a result of the new principal pay policy, they would “seek to retire as soon as possible,” “leave to obtain principalship in another school,” or “leave the principalship.”  A whopping 44% said they “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the compensation model.

WestEd’s recommendation is for a major overhaul of principal compensation.  Instead of tying pay solely to test scores, the report calls for broadening indicators of progress to include measures related to things like teacher recruitment/retention and school working conditions.  It suggests that North Carolina create “incentives, rather than disincentives, for working in high-need schools,” potentially including the following:

*A meaningful supplement for principals who take a position to turn around a persistently failing school

*Protection against principals having a salary reduction if they go to work in low-performing, hard-to-staff school in order to enable multiyear efforts to improve these schools

The WestEd report should serve as a major wake up call to state lawmakers who must now take action to ensure compliance with the Leandro court decision.  There’s no better place to start than working toward ensuring stable leadership in our neediest schools.

Justin Parmenter is an educator and public school advocate who lives in Charlotte. He blogs regularly at Notes from The Chalkboard.

Commentary, Legislature, News, Trump Administration

Trump administration cracks down on food stamps; new rule expected to deny assistance to 700,000 people

Beware the moments when no one is focusing on Trump administration policy, because it is usually these times when the cruelty-mongers in D.C. unfurl their most aggressively hostile regulations.

Case in point: President Trump on Wednesday unrolled a widely-expected crackdown on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program —colloquially known as “food stamps.” The new rules are expected to deny assistance to an estimated 700,000 low-income Americans.

Here is the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ (CBPP) explanation of the rule:

Those affected — SNAP participants ages 18 through 49 who aren’t raising minor children in their homes — are among the poorest of the poor, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Their average income is just 18 percent of the poverty line. Their average monthly SNAP benefits are about $165 per month.

A longstanding, harsh provision of SNAP limits these 18- through 49-year-olds to just three months of benefits, while not employed for at least 20 hours a week, out of every three years. Because of its severe nature, this provision of law also allows states to seek, and USDA to grant, waivers of this three-month cut-off for areas where insufficient jobs are available for these individuals, such as when unemployment is elevated.

From the provision’s enactment in 1996 until now, both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have operated under a common set of criteria in granting waivers from the three-month cut-off. And Democratic and Republican governors alike have sought and secured these waivers. Thirty-six states currently have waivers for parts of their state where unemployment is highest.

Now, the Trump Administration is abandoning this longstanding, bipartisan practice, however, and replacing it with a much more restrictive rule that will increase hunger and destitution. The new rule sharply restricts states’ ability to protect unemployed adults from the harsh time limit. It does so by substantially narrowing the criteria that states have most commonly used to qualify for waivers, thereby greatly shrinking the number of areas that can qualify for relief. As a result, the Trump Administration itself estimates that the rule will cut off basic food aid to nearly 700,000 unemployed or underemployed individuals.

In keeping with their brand, The National Review called the rule “commonsensical” Wednesday, which has the flamboyant quality of being an ugly word and an ugly statement at the same time. It makes sense only if withdrawing aid to the very poor and masking your choice as “the shrewd thing to do” constitutes a party platform.

It makes sense only if you believe that it is an aid to the United States to have more extremely poor people — people disproportionately impacted when the next recession hits.

More from CBPP:

Most of these individuals are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children. For many of them, SNAP is the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet.

What’s more, the final rule is more severe than the proposed rule, which itself was very harsh. States currently can request waivers when they experience rapidly rising unemployment, as typically occurs at the onset of economic downturns based on the Department of Labor’s determination that the state qualifies for extra federal unemployment benefits. But under the final rule, states must rely on historical data that would not reflect the onset of economic downturns until many months later. Moreover, far fewer areas will qualify for waivers during a widespread, national recession. A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP — its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance. Instead of mitigating a recession’s harm, the new rule will exacerbate it.

Democrats in North Carolina’s state legislature filed a bill this year that, among its provisions, aimed at repealing the state’s prohibition on the SNAP time-limit waiver, but it did not resonate with the Republican-controlled chambers. The bill was referred to a House rules committee but did not move.