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With a state budget nearly a month overdue, several Republican lawmakers headed to California this week to attend a conference with close ties to some of the nation’s largest corporations.

alecAt least three of the lawmakers will have their $700 registration costs for the American Legislative Exchange Council and a $104 per diem paid for by taxpayers, according to staff in the N.C. General Assembly’s legislative services division.

N.C House Speaker Tim Moore, state Sen. David Curtis, of Lincoln County, and state Rep. Hugh Blackwell, of Burke County, all requested reimbursement from the legislature.

The lawmakers will not receive the $104 per diem they generally get for being in session, and instead will get the travel per diem, which is the same amount.

It’s not all that unusual for the state legislature to pitch in for conferences like ALEC, which promotes free markets and limited government, or another annual conference by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

ALEC, however, has come under criticism in recent years, for its close ties to some of the nation’s largest corporations, with questions raised about the level of corporate influence making its way into Congress and state capitals through pieces of model legislation pushed by the group. Several high-profile companies have left ALEC, including Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Electric, Google and Microsoft.

There are other lawmakers from North Carolina attending the event in addition to the trio who will be reimbursed by the state, though they may be paying for the conference themselves or through campaign funds.

WRAL reported that state Sen. Bob Rucho, of Mecklenburg County, and the following House GOP members are headed to San Diego for the ALEC conference: state Reps. Mark Brody of Union County; John Fraley, of Iredell County Craig Horn of Union County; George Robinson of Caldwell County Stephen Ross of Alamance County; Jason Saine of Lincoln County; Sarah Stevens of Surry County.

The ALEC schedule lists Saine as a panelist for a discussion Friday about technology creating efficiencies in government.

“What I’ve found is that the meetings are very much just informative. You learn a lot of things,” Moore told WRAL.  “I know some of the groups coming out and criticizing ALEC, a lot of them are the same groups that criticize us because we want to lower taxes. But I frankly believe that’s what most North Carolinians want.”
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Graffiti on Confederate Women's Monument in downtown Raleigh (photo by Sarah Ovaska-Few).

Graffiti on Confederate Women’s Monument in downtown Raleigh (photo by Sarah Ovaska-Few).

The words “Black Lives Matter” were spray-painted on a Confederate monument on the State Capitol grounds overnight,

The Confederate Women’s Monument is downtown Raleigh is one of two Confederate monuments on the capitol grounds in downtown Raleigh, where Gov. Pat McCrory has his office.

Workers had begun trying to remove the “Black Lives Matter” graffiti off of the monument Tuesday morning.

Tuesday’s actions comes as the state House of Representatives will finish debating a bill today that would make it more difficult for local communities to remove Confederate monuments from public property. Any removals would have to be approved by the state legislature.

McCrory has also said he wants the legislature to pass a law preventing the distribution of “Sons of Confederate Veterans” state license plates adorned with the Confederate battle flag. Republican state Sen. Phil Berger has said McCrory has the power to stop issuing the plates on his own, and does not need the legislature’s permission.

Meanwhile, demand last month for the Confederate flag license plates depleted the state’s existing stock, and the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, which is under McCrory’s purview, is in the process of having more produced.

Workers try to remove "Black Lives Matter" graffiti on Confederate monument.

Workers try to remove “Black Lives Matter” graffiti on Confederate monument.

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Note: This post has been updated to include comment from Moore’s legislative office.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore has a new job, after he was hired this week to serve as the attorney for Cleveland County, where he lives.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

One of his tasks in the county position will be to “[a]dvise the Board and Manager on proposed legislation,” according to a copy of Moore’s contract, which was obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.

That could raise questions about whether the new job poses a conflict of interest for Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican. As head of the state House of Representatives, Moore has considerable influence and insider knowledge about state budget negotiations as well as other pieces of state legislation that affect counties around the state.

Moore’s legislative staff said that his county-based job will be limited to offering advice on proposed legislation in the county, and not any state legislation.

The House Speaker job tends to be a time-consuming one, though all members of the legislature are considered part-time lawmakers with many still running businesses or going to jobs in their home districts. Moore makes $38,151 a year as House Speaker.

The Shelby Star noted that when Moore was hired Tuesday at a county commission meeting, he made reference to his position in the state legislature.

“Moore joked about having another job that gave him ‘some insight’ about what is going on in the state and communities but still had a law practice to keep up,” the Shelby Star wrote in an article about Moore’s hiring.

State ethics law prevents those in public positions, like lawmakers, from using their public position to bring “financial benefit to the covered person or legislative employee, a member of the covered person’s or legislative employee’s extended family, or business with which the covered person or legislative employee is associated.”

Clayton Somers, Moore’s chief of staff, said Friday afternoon that Moore sought an informal ethics opinion before taking the job, and that the legislation referred to in the contract was only county-based proposals, not state legislation.

“He is not going to advise the county on any state legislation,” Somers said.

Moore will receive a $25,000 annual retainer, and will bill the county $250 an hour for whatever work he does serving as the legal adviser to the county commission, according to a copy of his contract obtained from Cleveland County by N.C. Policy Watch.

The job will require Moore to attend commission meetings, consult with the county commission and county manager as needed and prepare legal documents and contracts, in addition to offering advice about pending legislation.

“It just doesn’t look good,” said Jane Pinsky, the head of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, about Moore’s new contract employee job with the county.

Even if the arrangement is legal and Moore operates in an ethical manner, it can still leave the public with the impression that those in political power are able to easily secure jobs because of their public roles, she said.

“It’s one more thing that people think if you’re one of the good old boys, there’s a benefit to that,” Pinsky said.

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Stephen LaRoque will find out his fate tomorrow, as a federal judge decides whether he should spend time in prison for stealing  $300,000 from a federally-funded non-profit.

LaRoque, a former Republican state representative from Kinston who served in a leadership position, plead guilty earlier this year to the theft, shortly before a second trial was expected to start on criminal charges that he used two economic development non-profits he ran to fund a lavish personal lifestyle.

LaRoque-PCCourt testimony for this first trial, in which convictions were thrown out because of juror misconduct, showed that LaRoque transferred money to and from the bank accounts of the East Carolina Development Company to pay for things like cars, replica Faberge eggs for his wife, a Greenville ice skating rink and a Zamboni ice resurfacer.

LaRoque had denied any criminal wrongdoing at the trial. Instead, he said he was owed the money as part of his salary from the non-profit run by a board made up for several years of himself, his wife and brother.

The non-profit group was funded with millions in U.S. Department of Agriculture funding, as part of an anti-poverty rural lending program intended to offer loans to small businesses in rural area unable to obtain financial backing on their own.

The sentencing hearing will begin at 9 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Greenville, in front of U.S. Senior District Court Judge Malcolm Howard.

LaRoque, who was indicted on federal charges in 2012, following a 2011 N.C. Policy Watch investigation, agreed to pay back $300,000 in restitution in exchange for his guilty plea.

He faces a range of 2 years to 30 months in prison though Howard, the federal judge, could also opt to sentence LaRoque to probation, the punishment that LaRoque and his attorney are asking for.

“Stephen LaRoque is a broken man,” wrote Keith Williams, a Greenville defense attorney, in a memorandum asking for a probationary sentence. “After years of criminal prosecution, his political career is over, his financial standing has shriveled, and he and his wife face serious health issues as they advance in age.”

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UNC law professor Gene Nichol

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

The University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, in order to comply with a February decision by the university’s system governing board, shut its doors last week.

The privately-funded center based out of the Chapel Hill law school, UNC Board of Governor Chairman John Fennebresque explained in an editorial, “was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty.”

But many had trouble believing that reasoning, speculating that the center’s closing was an attempt to censor Gene Nichol, the tenured law professor who heads the poverty center and a vocal critic of policies passed by the Republican-led legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The UNC Board of Governors gets its appointments from the state legislature, and its ranks include several major contributors to the political campaigns of state Republicans.

But the work at the poverty center isn’t finished, Nichol wrote in the Institute for Southern Studies last week.

Funding for the center’s work has continued, and even increased, after the controversial closing of the center, and Nichol will now head the N.C. Poverty Research Fund.

From Nichol, in the Institute for Southern Studies:

I’ve been blessed with a long and varied academic career. But none of my efforts has approached the extraordinary honor of working, side by side for the past seven years, with North Carolina low-income communities and the dedicated students, professors, advocates and providers who seek to serve them. Together, we have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice. Those efforts, as you know, have led the UNC Board of Governors to close the Poverty Center. But poverty is the enemy in North Carolina. Not a tiny, privately-funded Poverty Center.  Heather Hunt and I have no words to match the gratitude we feel for the astonishing support the Poverty Center has received, in recent months, from thousands across North Carolina and the nation.

As the Poverty Center closes, the Law School now launches the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund. Thanks to the generosity of North Carolina foundations, and engaged and committed citizens from across the country, the new Fund will allow us to hire student, faculty and post-doctorate scholars to assist us in probing the causes of, and solutions to, economic injustice – and to publish, extensively, the fruits of our research. Donors have indicated repeatedly that they are unwilling to see the crucial work of the Poverty Center driven from the halls of the university. The Fund will assure that it continues, and that it continues in Chapel Hill. Censorship has poor track record. It won’t prevail here either.

Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, 18 percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re 10th, speeding past the competition. Greensboro, the federal government tells us, is the hungriest city in America. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. Over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country’s steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this storied commonwealth. Even if our leaders choose to ignore it.

You can read the rest of Nichol’s comments here.