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Les Merritt submits letter of resignation from Ethics Commission

State Ethics Commission member Les Merritt submitted his letter of resignation Friday, addressing concerns about a conflict with his work as a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services contractor.

"I have certainly enjoyed my tenure and consider serving on the Ethics Commission a privilege," he wrote. "The work of the commission is very important and I know all the commission members and staff are honorable people, serving the state of North Carolina for the right reasons.

"In that regard, I do not want even the 'appearance of a conflict of interest' to cast a shadow on the integrity of the commission," he concluded.

Merritt Resignation Ltr 9-27-13.pdf

Pat McCrory's closest transition advisors include big GOP donors, politicos

Pat McCrory's transition office released a list of top advisors consulting for the governor-elect as part of his working groups -- a list filled with prominent GOP donors and politicos.

Among the names: Bill Cobey, the former GOP chairman, is consulting on administrative matters; Fred Smith, a former state senator and developer, is consulting on environmental issues; and Les Merritt, a member of the state ethics board and former state auditor, is consulting on tax reform. (See full list below.)

The names are likely to reflect many that will work in McCrory's administration but don't represent all offering advice to the incoming Republican governor, the transition office acknowledged. Others are giving informal suggestions in conference calls and meetings but are not listed.

One glaring omission is the lack of leaders on two major topics McCrory promised to accomplish in the campaign: education and government transformation. A McCrory aide said the groups will commence after the Jobs and Economy team finishes their work, given their relation to each other.

State auditor's car gets booted but it's not Beth Wood's fault

State Auditor Beth Wood was chagrined Thursday when she had to pay off $245 in old parking tickets before the city of Raleigh would remove the heavy orange boot clamped to her car. But she was eager to explain her alibi. It involved politics.

Five unpaid tickets had been charged to a car with the special license number “6,” assigned by North Carolina law to the state auditor. A city parking official told Wood the tickets dated from 2007 and 2008.

Wood, a Democrat, took office after defeating the former state auditor, Republican Les Merritt, in November 2008. She protested Thursday that Merritt had been driving the No. 6 car when it racked up those tickets, all for commercial loading zone violations. Read the full story here.

Personnel file: Les Merritt joins charter school group

Former State Auditor Les Merritt is joining the board of directors at the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The Zebulon CPA will serve as the organization's treasurer, the alliance's president, Paul Norcross, announced. Merritt is also a member of the State Ethics Commission.

"Public charter schools are an important piece of our state’s educational system,” Merritt said in a statement.  "I strongly believe in public charter schools and am pleased to support the charter school movement..."

Wood: Attacks unfounded

State Auditor Beth Wood's job is to keep a close eye on how other state officials run their offices.

Now, Wood said, someone is gunning for her.

Wood was responding to questions about an anonymous tip Dome received, saying that Wood had two executive assistants babysit a child at the office during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Wood acknowledged she had the daughter of a friend in the office, but no one was asked to baby sit. She said the tip was another in a series of unfounded attacks against her.

"Whoever gave you that tip is just looking for another way to try to discredit this office," Wood told Dome. "Every time someone digs into something that affects me, there's nothing there. People think they can get my name in the paper and create the illusion that I'm doing something wrong."

Between Dec. 14 and Christmas, Wood said she worked a light schedule, about 24 hours a week. During those weeks, Wood said, the 8-year-old daughter of a friend was staying with her. When Wood went to the office, the child went with her.

The girl had books and a portable game system to keep her busy.

"If I had to talk to somebody while I was here, she sat while I went and took care of it," Wood said. "Did I stop the child from interacting with my executive assistant? No I did not. Was she baby-sitting her? No. Absolutely not."

Merritt: Ethics board has no teeth

Former state Auditor Les Merritt said the N.C. State Ethics Commission has failed to keep government clean.

In an opinion piece published in the Fayetteville Observer, Merritt writes that the commission has been silent as multiple investigations focus on former Gov. Mike Easley.

However, in nearly three years of existence, the commission has done little to tackle real ethics issues in our state. Not a single resolution of note has come as a result of any Ethics Commission investigation, even though several dozen complaints have been submitted or referred. For example, the media have reported that former Gov. Mike Easley allegedly failed to disclose a seemingly inappropriate relationship on his Statement of Economic Interest, but this went undetected (or perhaps unchallenged) by the Ethics Commission.

Meanwhile, a Board of Elections investigation continues into alleged campaign finance violations by Easley, as well as a federal grand jury investigation of how his wife obtained her position (and subsequent 80 percent raise) at North Carolina State University.

None of these issues appears to have been surfaced or investigated by the Ethics Commission.

Worker says he was targeted for politics

An assistant auditor has sued the state, claiming that his bosses are going after him because he is a Republican.

Darryl Black sued the Office of the State Auditor, saying that after Democratic Auditor Beth Wood was elected, supervisors in her office began pressuring him to take a voluntary layoff because he is a Republican.

A spokesman for Wood and the Auditor's Office said he could not comment on the lawsuit because it involved personnel issues.

Prior to 2007, Black says in the lawsuit, he received good or even outstanding performance reviews. In 2008, before the most recent election for auditor, Black wrote letters published in The News & Observer. He did not identify himself as a state employee and the issues he wrote about were not connected to his duties as an auditor.

Black previously had run for the legislature as a Republican and he believed his managers knew of his political leanings.

More after the jump.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the administrative employee who had previously been let go. The employee is a 23-year veteran of the office, not a 23-year-old. Dome regrets the error.

Wood testifies about Easley audit

State Auditor Beth Wood testified today before the federal grand jury investigating former Gov. Mike Easley.

Most of the questions revolved around an unreleased audit reviewing the $170,000 salary paid to Mary Easley at N.C. State University before she was fired in June, according to Dennis Patterson, a spokesman for Wood.

Wood, a Democrat, had acknowledged in a previous interview that she had told her staff that one reason for not releasing the salary audit was that state Sen. Tony Rand, a powerful Democrat from Fayetteville and a long-time Easley supporter, would poke holes in it.

Rand had represented Mary Easley when Wood's predecessor, Les Merritt, audited her European travels paid by tax dollars. Merritt found that some expenses were questionable.

Wood was worried whether the salary audit would stand up to close scrutiny, Patterson said.

"She told them Tony Rand is a good lawyer, and if he punched holes in the travel audit, he'd rip up this one," Patterson said.

More after the jump.

Audit settles ethics dispute

The state auditor and the State Ethics Commission have ended a battle stemming from an investigation into the handling of then-Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue's ethics files.

A state audit released today found that officials with the State Ethics Commission had not intentionally destroyed evidence in the matter, but did find that commission staff had not followed procedures in making the ethics statements available to the public, Dan Kane reports.

The case stems from a visit that Perdue's legal counsel, Will Polk, had made in October 2007, to review her ethics statements, which are an accounting of her financial interests. The statements are intended to help officials avoid conflicts of interest. Polk had been allowed to review the files behind closed doors. An aide, Amanda Thaxton, had noted in an electronic log that this was not the commission's policy; a staff email had told them not to let members of the public review ethics files without staff supervision.

Thaxton filed a complaint to the auditor's office, which then launched an investigation. She was later fired by the commission and has since filed a whistleblower's lawsuit that is pending in state court. The commission has denied that she was fired in retaliation. The audit did not address Thaxton's whistleblower claim. Copies of the log showed that her entry had been removed. But the auditor's report released today found that the change was made prior to the commission being notified of the auditor's investigation, so there was no evidence of tampering.

More after the jump.

Dome Memo: Home movies, late budgets

OF COURSE THERE'S VIDEO: The least surprising thing that Andrew Young, former close aide to John Edwards, had to say in his book proposal: there's a sex tape. A year ago, that news might have been shocking. But a sex tape now fits comfortably along the downward trajectory Edwards' public image has been following since he begrudgingly acknowledged an extra-marital affair. Of course, we don't think Young visited the federal courthouse this week to talk about film.

BERGER UNLEASHED: Senate minority Leader Phil Berger ran wide open this week. He blasted North Carolina Democrats at home in the usual outlets, and then let 'em have it in the Wall Street Journal. We're not sure, but we think Berger wants people to know he's unhappy with the majority party.

THAT WAS CLOSE: The House and Senate agreed at the last minute to a bill to keep the state running while they wrangle over the budget. The House got its way and the temporary bill sets a two-week deadline for the chambers to agree. Gov. Beverly Perdue says to hurry up.

IN OTHER NEWS: House Republicans don't like the way Democrats name important bills. No charges will be filed in a case where a Blue Cross and Blue Shield lobbyist was accused of attempted bribery. Former auditor Les Merritt has launched a foundation to expose public corruption. The Republican Party is gearing up to go after freshman Democrat U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell in 2010. And the recession has prompted a drop in the prices of premium liquor, so at least there's some good news.

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