Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Lawmakers urged not to override veto of bill making political investigations secret

Lawmakers are expected to override a veto this afternoon that would make campaign finance investigations confidential to the public.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 1029, which also restructures the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, because of its lack of transparency during a time when the voting system is being highly scrutinized. The State Board has been investigating alleged absentee ballot fraud for the past month in the 9th congressional district.

“Disturbing allegations of election fraud in the 9th congressional district race are mounting,” Cooper said in a statement yesterday. “Yet it’s astonishing that the legislature has passed a bill, HB 1029 (which I vetoed), that mandates secrecy for campaign finance investigations by the Elections Board.”

He encouraged North Carolinians to reach out to lawmakers to tell them they don’t want to protect politicians who commit fraud. The House and Senate return at 2 p.m. today to vote on the veto override.

Bob Hall, who used to work as the Executive Director of voting rights organization Democracy NC, also urged lawmakers not to override Cooper’s veto. Over the past 20+ years, he has filed numerous complaints with the State Board regarding possible campaign finance violations involving Democrats and Republicans.

Read his letter to the legislature below:

Dear Legislator,

I urge you to not override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of H-1029 and, instead, adopt a new bill that omits the parts of Section 4 which mandate: “All investigations shall be confidential” “with respect to alleged failures to file any statement required” by North Carolina’s campaign finance statutes or “with respect to alleged violations of any part of” the campaign finance statutes.

It is not in the best interest of legislators, candidates or the public to handcuff the State Board of Elections from revealing the status or the findings of its investigations about charges which may be entirely bogus. Under current law, the Board may close any investigation that involves possible criminal violations. It may then announce its findings, exonerate the target of a complaint, levy a fine, or refer the case to the appropriate prosecutor. Under H-1029, a registered voter such as myself could publicly release a complaint alleging serious violations but the State Board would be prohibited from revealing what its investigation determined. The public would be left to speculate about the alleged wrongdoing and the politician or party would remain under a cloud.

At this moment, I have multiple complaints pending at the State Board. For example, one alleges that Sen. Brent Jackson and his campaign “deceive the public” by purposely misidentifying dozens of campaign donors as “farmers.” More than $80,000 is thereby masked, with a substantial amount coming from business leaders across the state who benefitted from decisions of the Senate Appropriation Committee co-chaired by Sen. Jackson and legislation he helped pass. Another complaint I filed alleges that Judge Phil Berger Jr. (a) received campaign contributions from straw donors, i.e., the money came from somebody other than the person listed on Berger’s disclosure reports; (b) failed to report the expenses involved in fundraising events; and (c) received $10,000 from misidentified video poker sweepstakes owners who were, at the time of the donation, involved in a lawsuit in his home county and who were seeking its favorable resolution.

Eventually, the investigations of these complaints will end and the public will know what, if any, wrongdoing the State Board discovered. But no public release of the investigations’ findings would be permitted under H-1029.

Moreover, H-1029 will severely limit the capacity of the Board to uncover problems through an investigative public hearing, such as those held in the past regarding alleged campaign finance violations of House Speakers Jim Black and Harold Brubaker and legislators Thomas Wright and Fletcher Hartsell. These public hearings are vital (1) to determine the existence and scope of wrongdoing, if any, and (2) to bring enough public attention to apparent violations to cause prosecutors to pursue the cases referred to them.

The strict confidentiality mandated by H-1029 will cause innocent political figures to remain under a cloud of suspicion, and it will allow guilty political figures to escape punishment by having their cases secretly referred to local prosecutors who can simply ignore them. H-1029 should be changed.

Thank you,

Bob Hall
Durham

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Stein encourages Congress to support federal criminal justice reform

Attorney General Josh Stein signed on to a letter today urging U.S. House leadership to support the First Step Act, legislation to strengthen the criminal justice system through reforms to facilitate the reentry of people leaving incarceration and to empower prosecutors to seek appropriate sentences.

“This legislation will make our criminal justice system smarter and our communities safer,” said Stein in a news release. “In particular, I strongly support its provisions to support the reentry of the 95 percent of people who are currently in prison and will eventually get out. This year in North Carolina alone, 20,000 people will leave incarceration. Adequately preparing them to succeed upon release reduces repeat crime and reincarceration.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted 87-12 in favor of the First Step Act, and today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve it. It was sent to President Donald Trump for a signature.

He joined 36 other attorney generals who signed the letter, including those from the District of Columbia, Texas, California, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia.

The First Step Act makes limited changes to the federal criminal justice system, including restricting the use of restraints on pregnant women, expanding compassionate release and relaxing a three strikes law.

“As our jurisdictions’ Attorneys General, public safety and the faithful execution of the law fall squarely on our shoulder,” states the letter Stein signed. “Constituents hold us uniquely accountable for ensuring our communities provide a safe place to work and raise a family. To that end, we have supported legislation that strongly punishes criminal conduct while making sure people exiting prison pose less of a threat than when they entered.”

Read the full letter sent to Congress here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Lawsuit filed as soon as voter ID becomes law in NC

Within minutes of House lawmakers taking the final vote to implement photo voter ID in North Carolina, six voters filed a lawsuit challenging the measure.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 824, the measure requiring voters to show a photo ID to cast a ballot, and the House and Senate voted Wednesday to override it. It’s expected a photo ID will be required to vote as early as next fall.

The lawsuit was filed in Wake County Superior Court as soon as the bill became law, as well as a motion requesting a preliminary injunction, which would temporarily stop the measure from taking effect while the case works its way through the courts.

“The North Carolina Constitution provides numerous and inviolable protections for the fundamental right to vote of all its citizens,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). “Just because the North Carolina Constitution now authorizes, with exceptions, the presentation of a picture ID when voting does not mean those other longstanding protections can be ignored or violated.”

SCSJ is representing plaintiffs in the case, along with pro-bono counsel from the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The voting rights organization also represented plaintiffs who successfully challenged the state’s 2013 monster voter suppression law, which was ultimately struck down by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The lawsuit alleges the SB 824 violates multiple provisions of the state constitution by purposefully discriminating against and disproportionately impacting African-American and American-Indian qualified voters, unduly burdening the fundamental right to vote, creating separate classes of voters and imposing a cost on voting, among other things.

“It is the legislature’s duty to balance competing demands in the State Constitution,” Riggs said. “It has failed miserably in its exercise of balancing the new ID constitutional amendment, which explicitly allows for exceptions, with the numerous other state constitutional demands that have been interpreted to aggressively protect the right to vote. Any legislative scheme that requires voters to present ID when voting must have fail-safe measures to ensure that not one single eligible voter is disenfranchised. Our State Constitution demands it.”

Passing voter ID did not come without robust debate, particularly in the House on Wednesday. Republicans told their colleagues they felt North Carolina voters were scorned by Cooper’s veto, and that they worked diligently and in good faith to pass a reasonable bill. Democrats tried to explain how people would be disenfranchised by the bill and why they were voting against it.

Ultimately the House voted 72-40 to override the veto.

Another voting rights organization, Democracy NC, called SB 824 a poorly-funded measure with complicated requirements and hasty implementation deadlines that will impact real voters — especially communities of color and those most marginalized in politics.

“Lawmakers could have reasonably waited to act until their duly-elected successors were seated,” said Executive Director Tomas Lopez. “They did not: this is a last-ditch effort to shape our voting rules without hearing from those affected. Our collective work now turns to mitigating this law’s harms, especially in communities that have seen first-hand how voting restrictions discourage participation and damage the integrity of the voting process.”

Read the full pending lawsuit here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cooper’s threat of elections bill veto inflames GOP legislative leaders

GOP lawmakers are none too happy with Gov. Roy Cooper threatening to veto a bill restructuring the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Cooper told the News and Observer that he took issue with a provision in House Bill 1029 making campaign finance investigations completely confidential and that he wouldn’t veto the measure if lawmakers fixed it.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) issued scathing statements to media after Cooper’s threat.

“Gov. Cooper laid bare what he’s sought for two years: partisan weaponization of the Board of Elections’ investigatory power,” Berger wrote.

He went on to criticize Cooper’s choice to chair the State Board, Andy Penry, who resigned recently after the state Republican Party accused him of being partisan on social media. In his resignation letter, Penry said he didn’t want to take away from the State Board’s investigation into absentee ballot fraud in the 9th congressional district.

The 9th congressional district investigation has been at the center of the back-and-forth between lawmakers and Cooper with regard to the future of the State Board.

A three-judge panel ruled the current structure of the State Board unconstitutional, and it was set to revert back to the original law before Cooper took office. The same panel, however, has given extensions for the current State Board to stay in place as it continues the investigation.

Berger indicated that by Cooper failing to issue his veto early, it obstructs the State Board from moving forward in the investigation.

“Gov. Cooper’s failure to act is holding the entire Board of Elections hostage, including the NC-9 investigation, in his effort to achieve unchecked power to launch corrupt and unfounded partisan attacks on legislators,” he wrote.

Lewis similarly chided Cooper for appointing Penry and indicated that the provision making campaign finance investigations confidential were needed due process protections. It should be noted though that public members being criminally investigated are not afforded those same “due process protections.”

He added that Cooper’s refusal to issue a veto was “intentionally ruining the holiday season” for cafeteria workers, clerks and non-partisan staff.

“On a broader note, it is frustrating that the Governor refuses to negotiate anything of consequence with this legislature,” Lewis said. “Unless he quickly learns how to work in good faith and give as well as take in a discussion, North Carolina is in for a long two years.”

Confidential investigations were not part of the State Board structure before these GOP legislators decided to add it in to the new measure.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Senate GOP compares Governor to Grinch to hurry along veto process

Sen. Bill Rabon

Senate Republicans are using their staff to try and force Gov. Roy Cooper’s hand in either vetoing two bills or not before everyone scatters for Christmas plans.

“The hardworking non-partisan staff, member office staffs and reporters who cover the General Assembly don’t deserve to get caught up in Gov. Cooper’s political gamesmanship,” said Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick). “Gov. Cooper already knows if he is going to veto any of the bills that we passed last week and he should do so as soon as possible so staff can make holiday plans without the specter of a Christmas week override vote hanging over their heads.”

It should be noted that it was Republican lawmakers who called everyone into a lame duck session that was meant to address hurricane funding deficits but has instead dragged on for weeks. Other measures like voter ID and the structure of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement — as many Democrats have pointed out over the past couple weeks — could have been taken care of in January when lawmakers return for the next session.

Cooper has already vetoed the voter ID bill, and it’s expected lawmakers will return tomorrow to take a vote to override it. He has until 11:59 p.m. Saturday to veto House Bill 1029, the measure restructuring the State Board, and until 11:59 p.m. Sunday to veto a technical corrections bill.

His spokesman, Ford Porter, said last week that the Governor was reviewing State Board legislation carefully. His office has not given any indication of his plans to veto it or not, but it did get bipartisan support in both chambers.