Commentary, News

University researchers: North Carolina among the nation’s more politically corrupt states

The 2018 results will not come out until this fall, but according to the 2017 research compiled by the Institute for Corruption Studies at Illinois State University, North Carolina is (or, at least, is perceived as) one of the nation’s more corrupt states.

Since 2014, Professors Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston have published an annual report known as the “Corruption in America Survey” which includes a “Corruption Perceptions Index” that is based on feedback from journalists who cover state government. Here’s how the authors describe their methodology:

“We contacted close to 1,000 reporters via email/phone. We received a total of 270 responses. Unfortunately, in some states (Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia) we have a small number of responses partly due to small number of reporters covering state politics. Hence, while interpreting the results from these states we should be cautious. We received no responses from New Hampshire, and North Dakota.?

In our survey, we define illegal corruption as the private gains in the form of cash or gifts by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups. It is the form of corruption that attracts a great deal of public attention. A second form of corruption, however, is becoming more and more common in America: legal corruption. We define legal corruption as the political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding.” [Note: Policy Watch reporters were not surveyed.]

The study ranks states in several categories, including “Illegal Corruption” and “Legal Corruption” in the executive, legislative and judicial branches. In each area, North Carolina was ranked as more corrupt than most states.

“Illegal Corruption” in the executive and legislative branches was characterized as “moderately common” — tying us with several other states and ranking us behind only a handful in which corruption was determined to be “very” or “extremely” common in one or both categories, including Alabama, Kentucky, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Georgia, Hawaii and Pennsylvania.

Similar findings were reported in the area of “Legal Corruption.” In this area, North Carolina finds itself in the “very common” category — a rating that places it worse off than most states.

Obviously, the rankings include a host of very subjective factors and no doubt suffer from a time lag — many of North Carolina’s most infamous corruption stories date from a few years back — but the whole thing still makes for interesting reading. Click here to read the entire report.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

League of Women Voters identifies 5 principles for NC redistricting reform

How can North Carolina implement reasonable redistricting reform?

A League of Women Voters of North Carolina study cites five main principles lawmakers can use when crafting legislation to reform redistricting.

  1. Maintain a role for the legislature in the process, such as naming commissioners.
  2. Include citizens and/or impartial experts as commission members.
  3. Set strict rules for the commission’s work that 1) rule out partisan data and objectives and 2) use voting rules that force consensus.
  4. Provide for extensive citizen participation and transparency.
  5. Make the maps final on the commission’s vote, without further action by the legislature.

The voting rights group analyzed 50 redistricting bills introduced last year in 15 states — mostly in the South — and the U.S. Congress. The team also examined all 29 redistricting commissions already on the books across the country.

“The League’s key finding is that redistricting reform that preserves a role for the State Legislature but also adheres to the other four principles above can give our voters a greater voice in the process and prevent extreme partisan map-making,” states a news release about the study.

In analyzing the 50 redistricting bills, the group studied how each handled 12 factors that define a redistricting commission reform, including who picks the members and the chair of such a commission, how big the commission is, incumbent protection, political criteria and roles for judges.

Commission designs define who draws the maps and how they do it, according to the League’s findings.

“Most plans provide for the legislature to name most of the members, with the rest often selected by a two-stage ‘pool’ process, in which applicants (citizens, retired judges, or experts) are screened to form a pool, then members are picked from the pool, sometimes at random but more often by legislative leaders, the parties, or other officials, such as judges,” the document states.

The group encourages North Carolina lawmakers to develop its own “reasonable redistricting” design for 2021. See the full document on the group’s key findings below.

LWV Reasonable Redistricting Reform Key Takeaways by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cooper nominates Craig Croom to fill special Superior Court judgeship

Craig Croom

Gov. Roy Cooper nominated Craig Croom to serve as a special Superior Court judge.

Croom currently serves as a District Court Judge in Wake County, and his nomination will have to be confirmed by the General Assembly. Cooper sent lawmakers a letter last week announcing the nomination.

“Judge Croom’s experiences in the courtroom and in law enforcement give him a thorough understanding of our justice system,” Cooper said in a Tuesday news release. “I appreciate his continued service to North Carolina and am confident that he is well qualified to serve in this role.”

The vacancy for which Croom was nominated was created March 6.

Special Superior Court judges are not required to live in the district they hold court (they can be sent to anywhere in the state) and they are appointed by the governor to five-year terms. Some special Superior Court judges are also appointed to hear business court cases.

The judges have the same power and authority as a regular Superior Court judge. Their starting salary is also the same, $132,584, according to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

Croom previously served as an administrative law judge, a special Superior Court judge, an assistant district attorney and a Wake County sheriff’s deputy. He is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Central University School of Law.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Five of 12 Alamance residents charged with voter fraud take plea deals to lesser crimes

Five individuals from the “Alamance 12,” a group of North Carolinians accused felony voter fraud, have taken a plea deal to lesser charges, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

As part of the plea deals, Alamance County prosecutors dropped all felony voting-related charges for the five voters, who were represented by SCSJ. Anthony Haith, Neko Rogers, Whitney Brown, Keith Sellars and Willie Vinson Jr. each pleaded instead to a charge of misdemeanor obstruction of justice.

As part of the plea, the five individuals will each complete 24 hours of community service, be placed on unsupervised probation for 12 months and offer no admission of guilt to any voting-related charges, according to a Monday news release.

SCSJ released a statement afterward that its clients had to make a “hard decision.” It states they believe the law they were initially charged under was enacted in 1901 with an intent to discriminate against people of color and intimidate communities from voting.

“Such a law is unconstitutional,” the release states. “What happened in the courtroom today is nothing new, though. Far too often, people plead to lesser charges, even when justice is on their side, in order to avoid the possibility of facing time in prison, being separated from their families, losing their jobs, and disrupting their lives and the lives of those around them. Similar events happen every day in courtrooms across the country.

Our communities deserve better. No one should have to face the possibility of prison time for the act of casting a vote that they believed they were eligible to cast. These charges sought to punish people whose only intent was to participate in our democracy. All of the charges should have been dismissed and the law that led to these prosecutions should be deemed unconstitutional.”

Prosecutors charged 12 Alamance County voters with felony voter fraud because they were all on probation or parole for felony convictions at the time they voted in the 2016 presidential election.

It was not immediately clear if charges against the seven other individuals remained pending Monday or if they too took plea deals.

Environment

EPA hosting key community forum on GenX, PFAS, PFOS in Fayetteville today; public can comment from 3 to 8 p.m.

Policy Watch will live tweet the highlights of the daylong event @ncpolicywatch and @lisasorg .

Seven top EPA officials. Three division directors from the Department of Environmental Quality, plus Secretary Michael Regan. Even one of the top brass from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the major regulators and community watchdogs in the GenX drinking water crisis will speak at today’s public forum about perfluorinated compounds, but Chemours, the company responsible for the widespread contamination, will be conspicuous by its absence.

Hosted by the EPA, the public event begins at 10 a.m. at the Crown Ballroom, 1960 Coliseum Drive, in Fayetteville. It includes panels devoted to science, local issues and the community. A listening session for the public to provide input runs from 3 to 8 p.m.

State environmental officials had asked the EPA to hold two additional forums, one in Wilmington and the other in Greensboro, where emerging contaminants have also been detected in the water. The EPA declined, state officials said, because it lacked the time and resources.

Nonetheless, this is the first and only opportunity for North Carolinians to hear from, and speak directly to, the federal agency ultimately charged with regulating the more than 15 perfluorinated compounds, including PFAS, PFOS and GenX.

GenX has been detected in the Cape Fear River basin from Cumberland to Brunswick counties, including in river, its sediment, plus groundwater, drinking water, honey and the air. PFAS and PFOS have been founded throughout North Carolina, including Jordan Lake and Lake Michie. In the case of Jordan Lake, the contamination could be coming from the Haw River, already a problematic waterway. It is believed that Lake Michie is receiving the contaminants through the air; there are no wastewater treatment plants, industrial discharges or even sludge applications discharging into the lake.

The forum and public comments could help inform the EPA’s next steps, some of which could be finished yet this year. The EPA is scheduled to develop human health toxicity levels for GenX and recommending groundwater cleanup standards. PFOS and PFAS have been linked to high cholesterol, decreased immune response, thyroid disorders, cancer and high blood pressure in pregnant women. The EPA has set a drinking water health advisory — which is not legally enforceable — of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFAS, either individually or combined.

The health effects of GenX are less clear, because there is a lack of independent, peer-reviewed data. However, North Carolina has set a health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion. The state’s Science Advisory Board has been investigating the science behind that goal and is scheduled to recommend any changes some time this year.

Two health studies on these compounds are ongoing: Researchers Jane Hoppin, Nadine Kotlarz and Detlef Knappe of NC State, are analyzing blood and urine of about 300 volunteers in the Wilmington area. The state Department of Health and Human Services and CDC are conducting a smaller study of 30 people who live near the Chemours plant.

Meanwhile, the NC Policy Collaboratory received $5 million in this year’s state budget to conduct research on these compounds. Over the next year, more than 20 researchers, led by UNC professor Jason Surratt, will sample public water sources statewide. This will enable state regulators to know the current levels of contamination and begin monitoring for changes in those concentration.

The researchers also plan to examine how air emissions can contaminate groundwater, use modeling to predict vulnerable drinking water wells and test treatment systems that could remove the compounds.

The study will be overseen by an advisory committee of faculty members from UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Wilmington, Duke University, East Carolina University and North Carolina State University. Detlef Knappe, professor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at NC State University, and Lee Ferguson, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University, are the co-chairs of the committee.