Commentary, Legislature, News

Editorial: General Assembly was right to seat Rachel Hunt

Newly-seated state House member Rachel Hunt

A new editorial from The Charlotte Observer says the N.C. General Assembly was right to dismiss calls from a conservative advocacy group to block newly-elected lawmaker Rachel Hunt from a seat.

The opinion piece follows the N.C. Values Coalition’s last-minute plea to block Hunt after she ousted influential Republican Bill Brawley by a minuscule margin in November, claiming that they had zeroed in on hundreds of “questionable” absentee ballots.

But if the group was hoping for an outcry similar to the calamity in District 9, they’re surely disappointed. There’s a problem with their claim: The ballots they’ve targeted did not, apparently, clash with the state law.

The piece goes on to examine how North Carolina may approach the questions about absentee ballots, which clearly will be due for a once-over with state leaders in the coming years.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Rachel Hunt was sworn in as a member of the N.C. House on Wednesday, with a cloud hanging over her not of her own making. She earned the seat, and House leaders were right not to deprive her of it. But a challenge to her victory raises larger questions that go to the heart of voters having trust in North Carolina’s elections and that need to be addressed.

Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, knocked off incumbent Republican Bill Brawley by a mere 68 votes out of 38,000 cast in November. That caught the attention of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. It had a sister organization, the Institute for Faith & Family, comb through absentee mail-in ballots in Hunt’s district, House 103.

The group found more than 300 cases in which there was a discrepancy between the date the voter signed the ballot envelope and the date the witness to that vote did. That, the Values Coalition argued, suggests possible fraud and should have blocked Hunt from being seated.

One problem with that: State law does not require that the dates match. In fact, state law does not mention witnesses dating their signatures on absentee ballots. And the state board of elections had suggested to county boards last April that they not throw out a ballot just because the voter and witness dates differed. Given all that, the Mecklenburg board hand-inspected absentee ballots after Election Day, including the 300 in question, and approved them. The county board and the state board certified the results, making Hunt the legitimate winner.

Still, the whole episode suggests some changes are needed. Witnesses weren’t asked to date their signatures on absentee ballots until 2018. The state board of elections initiated that practice after the 2016 election as a tool to help identify voter fraud. After all, though it’s not illegal, a discrepancy between the voter and witness dates does raise questions about whether the vote was actually witnessed.

State elections officials say that date discrepancies may be fodder for an investigation. Yet at the same time, they emphasize to county boards not to pay such discrepancies much mind.

And so the Mecklenburg Board of Elections didn’t, and isn’t. Were the questionable absentee ballots only in Hunt’s House 103, or were there similar ballots in races across the county and state? Were there one or two witnesses signing the ballots in question, or many? Were these ballots mostly from voters of one party or the other?

Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson can’t say, because he hasn’t inspected the 300 ballots to look for patterns. He told the Observer editorial board Wednesday he’s happy to do so if the state or his board want him to.

By themselves, the differing dates found by the Values Coalition hardly suggest the House 103 results are tainted. It’s unlikely they are. But many voters at least want to know that nothing’s being swept under the rug. A state board spokesman said that office has opened an investigation into the ballots the Values Coalition flagged. That’s good; a closer look would be valuable, as would more consistent and precise guidance from the state.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Editorial: Reject Mark Harris’ plea to seat him

Rev. Mark Harris

North Carolina’s chaotic 9th District fiasco took another turn Thursday, with Republican candidate Mark Harris asking a court to step in and seal his victory over Democrat Dan McCready, despite mounting evidence that something went badly awry during the election.

Given the blooming investigation into possible election fraud, it’s a bad faith effort that could only damage the public’s good faith in our election process, a point highlighted in a sterling editorial Thursday evening from The Fayetteville Observer.

But with the already apparent resistance to seating Harris in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, which has the power to rebuff him in his quest for a seat, the crisis for 9th District voters seems far from finished.

Check out the editorial below:

Mark Harris’ desperate struggle to claim a tarnished election victory in the 9th Congressional District moved to Wake County Superior Court Thursday as his campaign asked a judge to order the state elections director to certify his victory. That’s a bad idea that could turn out to be a far-reaching miscarriage of justice. While the official vote count gives Harris a 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready, affidavits and other evidence already made public cast doubts on the legitimacy of that victory. Tampering with absentee ballots almost certainly occurred and until several investigations are completed, we won’t know if Harris actually has enough votes to win. Certifying his victory at this point is a risky decision based on guesses and wishful thinking.

It’s unclear when any informed decisions will be made about the elections, since constitutional questions about the elections board led the courts to dissolve it. A hearing on the 9th District race had been scheduled for next week but has been indefinitely postponed until a new board is seated at the end of this month. Harris argues that “Time is of the essence” and that district residents shouldn’t be deprived of representation. But Sen. Thom Tillis has already stepped forward and told residents to contact his office for any assistance they may need with federal issues. That removes any need to rush.

Meanwhile, Republicans appear to forget (conveniently, we expect) that in 2014, when former 12th District Congressman Mel Watt resigned to take a position in the Obama administration, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and fellow party leaders chose to leave the post vacant until the next election. Residents of the 12th went 10 months without a congressman and the GOP saw no problem with that. After all, they said, there were saving taxpayers $1 million by not holding a special election.

And now it’s life-and-death to have a certified congressman from the 9th, whether or not he really won?

Even if a Superior Court judge orders Harris seated, two other things are likely to delay his journey to Washington:

• Any decision to seat him would almost certainly be appealed to a higher court.

• And the new Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives, who were sworn in on Thursday, have already said they’ll refuse to seat Harris until the investigations are completed. Those leaders have constitutional authority to order a new election — complete with a primary — anyway. If the evidence continues to point to widespread fraud, that’s what they’re likely to do, if the state doesn’t get there first.

Let’s take the time to get this right.

 

Education, News

After backlash, North Carolina lawmakers give a reprieve to school targeted for takeover

After a swift backlash, North Carolina legislators approved a handful of changes to state law Thursday that would offer a reprieve to one struggling Wayne County elementary targeted for takeover by the Innovative School District.

The changes emerged from a conference report on a technical corrections bill approved Thursday by House and Senate lawmakers.

The bill is bound for Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, and it’s unclear whether or not the Democratic governor will sign off, given its inclusion of a controversial allowance for municipal charter schools — like those in the works in the Charlotte suburbs — to opt into the state’s retirement and health system.

Such an allowance clears a major hurdle for the prospective schools, which critics say will exacerbate segregation in Charlotte-area schools, already one of the state’s more divided districts.

Even if Cooper vetoes the bill, Republican lawmakers still hold a veto-proof majority, at least until the newly-elected members of the General Assembly take office in January.

This week’s revision to the Innovative School District law would appear to head off a confrontation with Wayne County school leaders, one of which would not rule out a lawsuit in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

Local district leaders blasted state officials’ process in selecting the school, Carver Heights Elementary, which would now be allowed to follow through on its application to join the state’s “Restart” program. Under the program, struggling schools can be cleared for charter-like flexibility.

This week’s bill also nixes a requirement that the ISD take over at least two schools by the 2019-2020 school year, potentially setting up an even busier Fall 2019 for the program. Under state law, the initiative would have to take over another four schools going into 2020-2021.

State leaders approved the program’s takeover of a Robeson County school last year.

Wayne County school leaders applauded the news Friday.

“The positive support from State Board of Education members and State legislators about Wayne County Public Schools improvement efforts currently underway at Carver Heights Elementary has been absolutely tremendous,” Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said in a statement.

“We are extremely pleased with this legislation that is now on its way to the Governor’s Office. Our school district is highly appreciative of our local legislative delegation and the bi-partisan support that led to the passing of this legislation in both the House and Senate. Their actions speak volumes, and further affirm our district’s ability to change the academic trajectory of this school.”

The ISD was created by state lawmakers in 2016, potentially allowing charter operators to pilot operations in lagging traditional schools.

Education, News

After years of warnings about K-12 infrastructure, Speaker Moore to file $1.9 billion school bond bill

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

North Carolina lawmakers were told nearly three years ago that the state’s school infrastructure needs had reached a staggering $8 billion or more.

Yet efforts to put a statewide school bond referendum on the ballot were stymied by North Carolina lawmakers in recent years.

Today’s news might mean, however, that the proposal may finally have some momentum in the legislature.

State House Speaker Tim Moore announced that he would file a bill to put a $1.9 billion public school bond on the ballot, addressing at least a portion of the state’s capital needs.

According to Moore’s release, $1.3 billion would go to K-12 construction needs, $300 million to the UNC system, and $300 million to North Carolina’s community colleges.

“Education is what matters most to families and businesses — to the private and public sectors alike — and North Carolina is poised to build on historic commitments to our schools with another long-term investment in capital construction for our rapidly growing student population,” Moore said in the release.

“Our state’s explosive growth over the past decade brings opportunities and challenges for our school systems. The state General Assembly must continue to meet those needs with investments in our future.”

It’s worth mentioning that while Moore refers to “another” investment in our student population, this would mark the first statewide K-12 bond since 1996.

Lawmakers did authorize and voters approved a $2 billion bond in 2016 to fund STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) facilities on UNC campuses, but the state’s K-12 schools have long bemoaned the state of crumbling facilities in some of North Carolina’s poorer regions.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson also announced his support for the bond in Moore’s release Thursday, which came hours after GOP lawmakers choose Moore for his third term as state House speaker.

State officials told legislators nearly three years ago that the school construction tab was expected to balloon to $13 billion by 2026, and that’s before a controversial elementary class size cap may have exacerbated the problem for local districts.

No word yet on whether the bill has backing in the state Senate, which has been considerably more problematic for public school advocates in recent years.

Moore said in his release that the bill should be approved in the 2019 legislative session and be placed on the ballot in 2020.

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

As investigation inches closer to Trump, Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in prison

Donald Trump speaking

President Donald Trump

By this point, we would imagine the president is hearing footsteps behind him.

Of course, it’s difficult to put yourself in Donald Trump’s size 12 loafers, as it seems increasingly clear that he’s been implicated in at least a pair of campaign finance violations. But today’s news out of a New York courtroom indicates that our toxic tycoon is legally and politically imperiled as he watches the investigations march ever closer to his office.

From Politico today:

A contrite Michael Cohen on Wednesday received three years in prison for a series of tax fraud and lying charges, sending another former Donald Trump associate to jail.

Cohen’s sentence is not as large as the four-plus years that federal prosecutors in New York wanted, but it nonetheless stands out as the biggest punishment to date tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The sentence also puts a coda on the dramatic downfall for the 52-year-old longtime Trump lawyer who served in the president’s inner circle as recently as this spring but turned on the man he declared he’d “take a bullet for” soon after FBI agents raided his home, office and hotel room.

In the courtroom Wednesday, Cohen, wearing a black suit and blue tie, was visibly emotional. His eyes were red rimmed and at various points he broke down, his voice cracking while he read a prepared statement he had printed out.

“Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back,” Cohen told U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley, a Bill Clinton appointee who minutes later handed down the prison sentence. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired.”

In addition to the prison time, which is scheduled to begin with his surrender to federal authorities on March 6, Cohen will have to forfeit $500,000 in assets and pay $1.393 million in restitution.

Cohen, who has had a relationship with Trump dating back a dozen years, used his time before the court to hit back at the president’s recent declaration that his former attorney was “weak.” Cohen said he agreed with Trump’s assessment but noted his “weakness was a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”

“Time and time again I felt it as my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said, standing before his whole family in the courtroom. Both his mother and father cried at points during the hearing.

Minutes after Cohen learned his fate in court, Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani took a swing at the president’s former attorney by noting the size of his sentence compared to others in the special counsel’s 19-month old investigation.

“This is the real criminal sentence,” Giuliani told POLITICO. “I have no idea if it’s the right one or not, but I do know he’s proven to be a consummate liar who has lied at all stages of his situation.”

Cohen earlier this summer pleaded guilty with New York prosecutors to a slate of eight charges of tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance violations. Trump himself was implicated in the campaign finance crimes, with prosecutors saying he directed Trump in hush money payments designed to sway the 2016 presidential election. Cohen also later pleaded guilty with Mueller in November to lying to Congress about work he did during the election on an aborted Trump Tower project in Russia.

The judge on Wednesday slapped Cohen with a $50,000 fine for lying to Congress in the special counsel’s case, explaining that the penalty was meant “to recognize the gravity of the harm of lying to Congress in matters of national importance.” Two months of his three-year sentence are also tied to the lying-to-lawmakers charge.

Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen

Trump’s legal picture is growing inexorably darker as the White House considers its search for a new chief of staff. North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows is reportedly among the frontrunners for the dubious distinction.

Whether or not federal lawmakers consider the alleged campaign finance crimes to be an impeachable offense is clearly up for debate, but it seems likely that the president’s legal troubles may soon come to a head.

More from Politico:

Although Cohen’s sentence is the largest handed down to date for anyone targeted in Mueller’s probe, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is expected to receive far more time in prison. The longtime GOP lobbyist will learn his fate early next year from a pair of federal judges and is likely spending decades in prison following his conviction earlier this summer on bank and tax fraud charges in Virginia and a separate guilty plea in Washington.

Legal experts said Cohen’s three-year jail term isn’t a surprise for someone who has admitted guilt and helped prosecutors advance their cases.

“It is a fair and reasonable sentence that punishes him and sends a message to others who are considering committing similar crimes,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami.

Cohen’s conviction and sentence also doesn’t bode well for the president, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump golf partner who in January will become chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Anytime a former lawyer of yours goes to jail it’s probably not a good day,” the South Carolina senator said.