Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Federal government denies expediting request for all Eastern District subpoenas, puts it on ‘complex track’

The U.S. Department of Justice refuses to expedite a public records request for subpoenas issued by the Eastern District of North Carolina because it doesn’t believe the government’s integrity is in question affecting public confidence.

NC Policy Watch on Sept. 10 sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government asking for “Any and all subpoenas issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina from Aug. 1, 2018, to Sept. 10, 2018, and any and all correspondence and memorandum about those subpoenas during the same time frame.”

The request was supposed to be answered by Oct. 9, 20 business days from when it was sent. The government sent two letters today — one denying a request to expedite its response and another putting the request on the “complex track” and giving themselves an additional 10 business days to respond.

“Your request seeks records from one or more field offices, and involves many voluminous records and/or requires consultation with another agency/component with a substantial interest in the subject-matter and therefore falls within ‘unusual circumstances’ as set forth in the state,” the DOJ response states.

The DOJ did not return a request to discuss the FOIA further. It should be noted, however, that all requested documents would be held by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina — not “one or more field offices.”

NC Policy Watch also has already seen several subpoenas — 45 to be exact — and it took less than one day to receive them from other entities, so it’s not clear how the request was moved to the “complex” track.

Similarly, it’s not known why the DOJ denied the request to expedite documents. One of the requirements to be granted expedition is “that the request involves a matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exist possible questions about the government’s integrity which affect public confidence.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina sent unprecedented requests for millions of voter records that would have compromised the privacy of voters in North Carolina. It sent them to the State Board of Elections, county boards, the Department of Motor Vehicles and possibly more entities. The requests were massive and only made in North Carolina, where an important midterm election is looming.

The subpoenas garnered so much exceptional media coverage that the Attorney’s Office ended up rescinding part of its request and extending the deadline for which it sought public records. Election officials called into question the validity of the subpoenas and voting rights advocates pointed out the similarities in what the subpoenas requested to the now defunct Pence-Kobach Commission.

Prominent politicians also requested a federal investigation into the federal government’s involvement with the subpoenas and pointed out the relationship between U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. and President Donald Trump, who appointed him.

“As a representative of the news media affiliated with NC Policy Watch, I am gathering information on subpoenas that have been issued in North Carolina that is of current interest to the public because of the unprecedented nature of the volume of voter information requested,” the request to expedite records states. “The state is less than two months from an election and the government’s integrity has been called into question with regard to the information they are seeking and the timing for which they are seeking it. The public’s confidence in their election process is at stake as there have not been any answers about why these subpoenas were issued or how many of them there are.”

NC Policy Watch plans to appeal the denial to expedite the request. Read both of Monday’s letters from the DOJ below.

Denial to expedite by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Complex track by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Commentary

Their masters speak: Now we know why conservatives are now opposing proposed constitutional amendment

As reported in this space last week, a growing group of North Carolina Republican legislators have been having a change of heart about a constitutional amendment that they voted in June and August to put on the fall ballot. The power-grabbing amendment would seize the Governor’s power to fill judicial vacancies and hand it to legislative leaders. Now we know (or, at least, can make some strong inferences) as to what’s behind the flip-flop: the Koch Brothers have spoken.

Craig Jarvis of Raleigh’s News & Observer reports:

The North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity — one of the most prominent political organizations in the country — is coming out against a Republican effort to limit governors’ power to appoint judges.

The group started by the billionaire Koch brothers planned to launch what it said will be a six-figure ad campaign on Monday urging people to vote against one of the six proposed constitutional amendments that the Republican-controlled General Assembly put on the November ballot.

“The amendment is nothing more than a political power grab that would grant more authority to special interests and politicians, opening the door to partisan court packing while weakening our constitutional right to select our own judges,” state director Chris McCoy said in a prepared statement. “That is bad for voters and bad for our courts.

“We’re strongly urging all North Carolinians to reject this backdoor effort that would lead to manipulation and cronyism in an institution that must remain fair, independent and impartial.”

Good for AFP. One only wishes that the Koch empire had issued its directive to GOP lawmakers a little earlier in the game as it would undoubtedly have spared us from even having to deal with the darned thing.
Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend: Wake up, North Carolina!

This weekend’s best editorial comes from the Winston-Salem Journal. In “North Carolina must take climate change seriously,” the Journal calls on all of us to take immediate action in the aftermath of Hurricanes Florence and Michael:

“It’s folly to ignore solid science about climate change when warming is already having noticeable effects, as the recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made more clear than ever. Among its dire projections, we can expect more frequent major hurricanes that, like Florence, are difficult to predict and extremely wet.

It’s folly, in other words, to continue the policies adopted in 2012, when the legislature passed a law ordering state and local agencies to disregard scientific models showing expected sea-level rise when setting coastal development policies. As a result, coastal development has boomed.

North Carolina could help slow climate change by adopting progressive policies such as encouraging clean cars and alternative power sources. The state also can be smarter about planning for the probability of major storms and flooding.

The full extent of the environmental damage from Florence will be discovered as we see how badly the state’s rivers, sounds and ground water have been polluted. Once again, despite warnings and calls for reform, lagoons on industrial farms flooded or failed, releasing hog wastes. Industrial chicken farms also flooded.

Then there’s coal ash, and the slow pace at which Duke Energy and the state are moving to close storage ponds, even after the massive spill in 2014 from an old Duke plant into the Dan River at Eden. Hurricane Matthew two years ago sent toxins from a coal-ash pond near Goldsboro into the Neuse River. Florence flooded a coal-ash pond near Wilmington, and environmental groups are questioning state regulators’ assessments of the damage….

One of the most disturbing aspects of all this is that North Carolina has failed to learn lessons in the past. Hurricane Floyd stalled and rained over eastern North Carolina for days, flooding areas not in floodplains and sending millions of gallons of toxic hog waste, plus carcasses, into rivers. That was 19 years ago.

Even if we do everything possible in North Carolina, it might not be enough. Climate change is a global problem that requires a global response. Unfortunately, the current administration, by seeking to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and weakening environmental regulations, seems determined to make matters worse.

But we’ve still got to do everything we can, including voting for candidates who take the problem seriously.

Florence won’t be the last destructive hurricane to hit the state. We need to be smarter before the next time.”

NC Budget and Tax Center

Gov. Cooper proposes bold plan for Hurricane Florence recovery

This week, Governor Cooper released a report detailing the damages the state sustained from Hurricane Florence as well as a plan and recommended budget for rebuilding efforts. The plan recommends a total state commitment of $1.5 billion.

“In September 2018, Hurricane Florence brought high winds, dangerous storm surge and record rainfall that caused historic flooding throughout North Carolina. At its peak, Hurricane Florence was a Category 4 storm as wide as the entire state with winds reaching 140 mph. The storm hovered over North Carolina for six days, inflicting even higher levels of rainfall, storm surge, and flooding than Hurricane Matthew only two years prior. This deadly storm has left a lasting impact on families and neighborhoods across our state, resulting in 40 confirmed fatalities. Property damage and power outages were widespread, cutting power to over a million people and forcing tens of thousands of families to take refuge in emergency shelters. While the impacts of Hurricane Florence were felt across the state, those who live in the southeast bore the brunt of the storm. Twenty-eight counties have been designated by FEMA for federal disaster assistance. An estimated 2.6 million people, or one in four North Carolinians, live in one of the designated counties. Preliminary impact estimates approach $13 billion in damages across the state. This is over two times the $4.8 billion physical and economic cost of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.”

Legislators will return to Raleigh in a Special Session Monday devoted to funding long-term recovery needs for Eastern North Carolina.

Check out the full report HERE

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Local government officials encourage voters to oppose all 6 constitutional amendments

Durham County Soil and Water Supervisor Danielle Adams speaks out against all proposed constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Elected officials gathered Friday morning outside the Raleigh City Council building to encourage North Carolinians to vote “No” on all six constitutional amendment proposals on the November ballot.

Early voting starts next week, so campaigns for and against the six amendments are ramping up.

The amendments are a proposed cap on state income tax, a photo identification requirement for voting, a hunting and fishing measure, a legislative appointment process for judicial vacancies, a reorganization of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and a victim’s right proposal. Lawmakers have not included how each of those measures would work if approved by the public but plan to sort out the details in a lame-duck session if enacted.

Thirty-eight local elected officials from around the Triangle signed on to a letter Thursday detailing the harmful impacts of the proposed amendments to their communities and encouraging their constituents to oppose them. At the Friday press conference, they continued to highlight their concerns.

Danielle Adams, Durham County Soil and Water Supervisor, said lawmakers are asking voters to write them a blank check to fill in the details later. She spoke specifically about the hunting and fishing amendment, noting the right to hunt and fish had never been threatened in North Carolina and the proposal is unnecessary.

“They want us to vote now and ask questions later,” she said.

Morrisville Mayor TJ Cawley spoke about the measure that would reduce the current nine-member State Board to eight members — four Republicans and four Democrats. He said that enshrining partisan gridlock on the State Board could jeopardize early voting plans for local towns.

“Much to my disappointment and, I think, the disappointment of some in both parties, our legislature is in a divided chamber with no path forward to work together,” he said. “That same partisan gridlock will spread to our Elections Board if the amendment to change the Ethics and Elections Board passes. The amendment says that it will create a bipartisan board, however, what it doesn’t say is that it eliminates the nonpartisan member of the board.”

He added that an amendment that would benefit all parties and all North Carolinians is not before the voters: one that would eliminate partisan gerrymandering in mapmaking. He also said the current amendments are vague but crafted to appeal to voters.

“The closer you look, the worse they are for our communities,” he said.

The letter he and others signed on to states that they are “at a critical juncture in the future of North Carolina.”

“As representatives of local governments across North Carolina we urge our fellow citizens to vote against all six constitutional amendments,” it states.

Read the full letter here.