Veteran government watchdog files new complaint against Sen. Phil Berger over townhouse purchase

Sen. Phil Berger

Bob Hall cites recent ethics rulings which bar elected officials from using campaign funds, public reimbursement to purchase real property

North Carolina state President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R -Rockingham) should reimburse the state for at least $50,000 in subsidies that he received for living expenses in recent years according to a new complaint filed today by veteran government and elections watchdog, Bob Hall.

Hall’s complaint cites a May 20 memo from the Legislative Ethics Committee which seems to proscribe arrangements like the one Berger had. The memo states: “It is unethical for a legislator to accept per diem from the General Assembly for lodging and receive reimbursement for the same lodging from some other source.”

Hall says Berger has accepted more than $50,000 in such payments over a period of years in which his Raleigh townhouse was being paid for by other sources. In a news release, Hall cited a provision in the Ethics Committee memo which states that “Any legislator who has inappropriately accepted the subsistence allowance or travel allowance may repay such amounts to the Legislative Services Office via Financial Services.”

Hall says records indicate that Berger’s campaign stopped reimbursing the senator for lodging after the May memo appeared, but he wants Berger to be held accountable for prior payments.

As Policy Watch reported back in February, Hall has been complaining for some time about Berger’s dealings to purchase the townhouse. Originally, Hall focused on Berger’s use of campaign funds to buy the property. This is from the February report:

“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 [to T. Tate Apodaca, a lobbyist and son of former Republican state senator Tom Apodaca]—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.”

In today’s news release Hall highlighted a new campaign finance rule adopted by the State Board of Elections that took effect August 1 which bars the practice complained of in February – using campaign funds to purchase property.

The new campaign finance rule that took effect on August 1 bans politicians from using campaign money to ‘purchase, lease, rent, or make mortgage payments on residential real property,’ even if it’s a second home they occupy while in Raleigh on legislative business.

Hall said he petitioned the State Board of Elections in January to adopt the rule because of evidence that Sen. Berger was using campaign donations to ‘personally enrich himself’ with the purchase of a townhouse in Raleigh.

‘If state regulators let Berger continue to funnel money from his political donors into his pocket, then other legislators would do it, too, and we’d wind up in a cesspool of corruption scandals,’ said Hall.” Read more

COVID-19, News

Court denies Lt. Governor’s request for injunction on Governor’s pandemic orders

Lt. Governor Dan Forest

A Wake County Superior Court judge denied Lt. Governor Dan Forest’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of Gov. Roy Cooper’s pandemic related “shutdown orders.”

Forest, who is challenging Cooper for the governor’s office this November’s election, wanted the court to prevent enforcement of the orders unless a majority of the council of state concurred with the orders.

Judge James Gale concluded Cooper was within his authority to make the executive orders to address the pandemic for the duration of the emergency declaration and that Forest was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims.

“Accordingly, the Court concludes that the Lieutenant Governor has not demonstrated that he is likely to succeed on the merits of his claim that the Governor has exceeded his statutory authority when issuing the Executive Orders without the concurrence of the Council fo State,” Gale wrote.

Forest sued Cooper last month, seeking to void six of the executive orders Cooper had issued since March.

A number of business owners in the state have also, so far, been unsuccessful in lawsuits to void the orders.

“Dan Forest’s lawsuit never had teeth and today’s ruling confirms that,” said Cooper for NC spokesperson Liz Doherty in a statement Tuesday. “It was never more than a desperate tactic to garner attention for his political campaign. His time would be better spent putting the health and safety of North Carolinians before his own political motivations.”

Read Tuesday’s court order in its entirety here.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill provost defends withholding county health department pandemic recommendations

This week UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin defended withholding the Orange County Health Department director’s recommendation that the school move completely online for the Fall semester and cut on-campus housing to a bare minimum.

Blouin’s explanation came during a Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday afternoon.

The health department letter, which many faculty members first learned about through media reports, led to a tense faculty meeting last week at which Blouin and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz faced strong criticism. Many faculty members, who also heard about this summer’s cluster of infections among student athletes on campus through media reports, called the continued lack of transparency from school administrators disappointing. Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, called the failure to disclose the health director’s recommendation “a serious breach of trust.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin

On Monday Blouin returned to the letter, explaining that he and Guskiewicz did not believe that a memo from the county’s health department’s director was the department’s official position.

“Was this an official position of the health department?” Blouin said. “I guess we didn’t treat it as a position statement. If it was, they would have posted it on their website as a public release.”

The detailed three page memo, on health department letterhead, was addressed to Blouin, Guskiewicz and Vice Chancellor George Battle. It was copied to the county health department medical director and the medical director of occupational health care at UNC.

It contained the following paragraph:

“At this time, the Orange County Health Department recommends that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill consider the following:

* Restrict on campus housing to at-risk students with no access to equitable educational resources and those with true housing needs (i.e. International students, Carolina Covenant & marginalized students)

* Consider virtual classes for the entire Fall Semester but at minimum begin the first 5 weeks of the semester with online instruction only with plans to reassess the situation at the 5 week mark.”

It also concluded that the department’s recommendation did not come lightly but “from the public health perspective with the best information we have at the current time during these extraordinary circumstances.

Given all that, several faculty members seemed incredulous that the administration did not consider the memo an official position of the health department or something that warranted sharing with the wider community.

Administrators thought of the memo as a more of an informal summation of ongoing conversations, Blouin said. He didn’t see it as a public document or “something that needed to be shared,” he said, and didn’t believe the health department did either.

Sources inside the health department told Policy Watch last week that the memo was the result of the department’s suggestions not making any impact on the school’s decision making. When the memo itself did not change the school’s plan, the department ultimately sent the memo to local elected officials, who made it public.

Eric Muller, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and member of the Faculty Executive Committee, asked why the administration had come to the conclusion that those recommendations did not warrant immediate action whether or not it was made public.

Blouin said they believed they were already addressing the health department concerns “in spirit.”

That answer did not satisfy many faculty members.

Rather than going online for the fall semester — or at least the first five weeks — the campus began classes Monday, with a mixture of online and in-person instruction.

Instead of restricting housing to those without other available housing, the university pushed forward with a plan to have full capacity dorms. The density in the residence halls is down to 61 percent overall, Blouin said, Monday — but that is not the result of university restrictions but concerned students and their families getting out of their housing contracts.

“We thought it would be better if students made the determinations more on their own rather than being directed in one way or another,” Blouin said last week.

The university extended the period in which students could withdraw from contracts, but did not encourage them to do so. The school’s Carolina Away online program has been popular with students opting out of in-person instruction but, again, the university has not actively encouraged students to move online and away from residential, in-person instruction as a result of the pandemic.

With the university having therefore followed none of the recommendations from the health department, several faculty members said, it was difficult to determine how administrators considered they were already well on their way to addressing the department’s concerns and didn’t need to make the community aware of them.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC System faces lawsuit over unsafe working conditions in pandemic

Employees at UNC system schools filed a lawsuit Monday over what they say are unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court,  seeks a restraining order preventing the system’s 17 schools from making its employees work under conditions they know to be unsafe. It names as defendants the UNC System, UNC Board of Governors and Governor Roy Cooper.  The plaintiffs, who include staff members like housekeepers and faculty at various UNC schools.

Gary Shipman, an attorney and former UNC-Wilmington trustee, is representing the employees. Though classes began Monday at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, Shipman said in a statement that the system has to change course to be sure to protect the safety of employees that it knows are at risk under the current re-opening plans.

“Everyone involved in making the decision to reopen these campuses did so with the knowledge that it places these Employees at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 than they would have otherwise been exposed to had the ‘status quo’ of limiting the number of students on campus and going completely on-line to start the Fall of 2020 had been maintained as it has been since March, 2020,” Shipman wrote in a statement. “Things are far worse now than in March, 2020, and we contend that the law does not permit the University of North Carolina system or the Governor to force these Employees to work in conditions that place them at an increased risk of getting sick, being unable to work, being hospitalized, and even dying.  The decision has to be made to place the safety of these Employees and the communities where these campuses are located above the financial concerns that are associated with not returning all these students to these campuses.”

The suit, which seeks to become a class action, comes a week after  it was revealed the Orange County Health Department recommended that the UNC-Chapel Hill go online only in the Fall semester and limit on-campus housing to those who have no other place to go. Administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill decided to “stay the course” with their re-opening plans instead. They did not disclose the county health director’s recommendations to the UNC community or acknowledge them publicly until they had been reported in the media, a move that has drawn heavy criticism from students, faculty, staff and the community surrounding the university.

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin continued to defend those decisions Monday in a meeting with the school’s Faculty Executive Committee, saying administrators did not believe that a detailed e-mail outlining the health department’s recommendation from its director was the official position of the department and that she did not intend for the administration to share it publicly. He was surprised when the letter was later shared with public officials and became public, he said.

Read the suit filed Monday in its entirety here.

COVID-19, News, Trump Administration

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