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The N.C. Ethics Commission opted Friday to levy fines against 20 people serving on state boards who filed their annual statements of economic interest late.

The forms, which required individuals to divulge the financial interests of themselves and family members living in their home, are supposed to be filed by April 15. The N.C. Ethics Commission, which met on Friday in downtown Raleigh, received more than 6,000 forms this year, which are available via the Internet this year through a searchable database. (Click here to access.)

Among those fined were Atlantic Beach mayor A.B. “Trace” Cooper III; Elbert Richardson, the mayor of Troutman in Iredell County; and Kory Swanson, the president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think-tank.

No statewide elected officials or lawmakers faced fines.

Cooper and Richardson were both fined $500 each, for delinquent filings of both their economic interest forms as well as a disclosure form for real estate holdings required for those who sit on regional transportation boards. Cooper, who filed his forms on Aug. 6, is a member of the Down East Rural Transportation Planning Organization. Richardson is a member of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization and has yet to file his required ethics forms.

State law also required the ethics commission to refer the cases of Cooper, Richardson and four others on regional transportation boards to the State Bureau of Investigation.

Swanson, the John Locke Foundation president, serves on the state’s Seafood Industrial Park Authority, which requires him to file an annual statement of economic interest. Records with the state ethics show he filed a “no change form” on June 24, more than two months late. He was fined $250.

Others who filed their forms late included members of the environmental management commission, N.C. Medical Board, Board of Opticians and two superior court judges.

The ethics commission opted to waive fines for several people who filed late, but who had contacted the Ethics Commission and explained extenuating circumstances, like illnesses or extensive out-of-the-country travel.

 

News

Note: This post has been updated from the original to include a response from Gov. McCrory’s office.

The N.C. Justice Center, along with a number of media and non-profit coalition partners, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Pat McCrory today, accusing his office and administration of not fully complying with the state’s public records law.

The lawsuit was filed in Wake County Superior Court.

The N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit, filed the lawsuit because of issues N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the Justice Center, faced in obtaining public records from McCrory’s office and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Capitol Broadcasting Company, the parent company of WRAL; the News & Observer; the Alamance News; the Southern Environmental Law Center; the Durham-based alternative weekly Indy Week; and Media General Operations, which owns WNCN-TV in Raleigh and WNCT-TV in Greenville.

The lawsuit is seeking release of the various requested records, as well as policies that would prevent excessive fees to access public records and require prompt responses to future public records requests.

McCrory’s office issued a statement Tuesday night about the lawsuit, saying that the governor’s administration has been “a champion of transparency and fair and legitimate news gathering.”

But some media members and advocacy groups have abused the spirit of the public records law by filing overly broad and time-consuming requests, McCrory’s office wrote in a statement.

“Like the requests themselves, this lawsuit is an attempt to tie up state personnel and resources that should be spent serving the people of North Carolina,” the statement read.

(Click here to read the entirety of McCrory’s press statement.)

lawsuitmccrorypublicrecords.pdf by NC Policy Watch

News
John Fennebresque, UNC BOG chair

John Fennebresque, UNC BOG chair

A subcommittee of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors meets in Charlotte tomorrow to talk about the search for a new president of the 17-campus higher education system.

The board’s presidential search nominating committee is holding a public meeting at the McGuire Woods law firm in Charlotte, where UNC Board Chairman John Fennebresque is a vice-chairman at the law and lobbying firm.

Though the meeting is at a private law firm, it is public and open to anyone who wishes to attend. The meeting is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the McGuire Woods law firm, 201 N. Tryon Street in Charlotte.

The only items on the agenda are a review of past presidential searches and discussion by the committee.

UNC President Tom Ross

UNC President Tom Ross

The 32 members of the UNC Board of Governors, all of whom have received appointments from a Republican-led legislature, are looking for a new president after President Tom Ross was unexpectedly pushed out in January. Fennebresque, the board chair, cited a general desire for change while praising Ross for his leadership and denying that politics played a role in Ross’ ouster.

The state’s open meeting laws allow public bodies (like the UNC Board of Governors) to hold their meetings in areas usually off-limits to the public as long as the general public is allowed to attend, said Brandon Huffman, a Raleigh-based attorney with the Stephens, Martin, Vaughn and Tadych law firm, which specializes in First Amendment issues.

“They can have it there,” Huffman said. “They do have to allow the public the same access as they would at any other venue.”

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News

A group of North Carolina senators wants to keep government information in the hands of Tar Heels, and not those from outside the state.

Senate Bill 553, filed Thursday by Republican state Sen. Warren Daniel, aims to limit access to public records to North Carolina residents. Currently, state law allows for anyone to request records from any state or local government agency, regardless of their residence.

N.C. Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Morganton

Daniel said he filed the bill after local governments in his area received extensive records requests from out-of-state companies asking for vendor lists and other documents.

“They take up staff time and cost local government money,” said Daniel, a Morganton attorney. He added, “Why should local governments be spending time and money satisfying the curiosities of people that don’t live here in the state?”

In a 2013 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case out of Virginia that states could stop non-residents from using public records laws to access information. Other states with in-state restrictions for public records include Alabama, Arkansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Co-sponsors of the North Carolina bill include state Sen. Andrew Brock, Brent Jackson and Joyce Krawiec, all Republicans.

Brock also filed a government transparency bill, SB 633, on Thursday that would require every state and local government agency to publish on its website contact information for elected officials, procedures for requesting public records, all taxes and fees, salaries of all employees, detailed lists of purchases, contracts over $25,000 and other information.

S553v0 by NC Policy Watch

 

Commentary

In case you missed them over the weekend, there were at least two worth-your-time reads that raised more questions about the openness and transparency of a Governor who had promised to set new standards in those areas.

Number One is a fine essay by Ned Barnett of Raleigh’s News & Observer entitled “McCrory’s blind spot on ethics.” In it, Barnett rightfully takes the Governor to task for the yawning gap between some of his previous campaign rhetoric and the performance of his administration. Here are some excerpts:

“In his first run for governor in 2008, Pat McCrory fixed on a theme that would prove successful in his second try in 2012. He ran against what he considered the cloaked and unethical conduct of Democrats too long in power….

Now, in the third year of his first term, the words and theme of candidate McCrory have an odd resonance. There’s no evidence that Gov. McCrory has abused his powers, but there is also no evidence that he’s doing much to prevent abuses or dispel the appearance of potential abuses. This ‘reform’ governor is strangely cavalier when it comes to situations that raise ethical questions.”

After reviewing a long list a McCrory ethical lapses, Barnett puts it this way:

“McCrory says he’s getting tripped up because he has been in business rather than being exclusively a public servant. But it hardly seems a case of good-government sticklers picking on private-sector Pat. Rather, McCrory has made a living by mingling his public and private roles and now seems oblivious as to where one ends and the other begins.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Number Two is a brief AP news story in the Fayetteville Observer yesterday entitled “McCrory record seekers met with delays, demands for payments.” As the story reports: Read More