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Ethics, lobbying, campaign finance merger discussed

Legislators considering combining lobbyist reporting, campaign finance reporting and ethics under one agency heard from some of the people responsible for those jobs that that they didn't want their work taken away.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, whose office registers lobbyists and shares administration of the state lobbying law with the state Ethics Commission, told legislators today that her office should keep its responsibilities.

"Consolidation for the sake of consolidation should not be the highest value in the discussion," she said.

State Board of Elections Chairman Larry Leake said the campaign finance unit needs more employees but should stay where it is.

The Board of Elections handles not only state campaign and PAC reports, but supervises local boards of elections as they review county filings, he said.

But whatever happens ot campaign finance, he said, investigations should be in its own division.

Sen. Bob Rucho gigged Leake over the board's handling of an investigation into Gov. Bev Perdue's campaign flights, suggesting that the agency should concentrate on running elections since it didn't have enough time to completely investigate the flight complaint. 

The board, in a 3-2 party line vote in 2010, ended its investigation of Perdue campaign flights before holding hearings. Leake, a Democrat, told the agency's lead investigator to finish her work before interviewing Perdue's campaign manager because he wanted the report finished. 

"I know that your board was involved in a couple of episodes recently one of which you felt there wasn't enough time really to get an in-depth study of all the issues dealing with a particular complaint," said Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican.

Leake said administering elections is time-consuming, but "I believe that the fact that the campaign finance laws and the adminstration of elections and the folks running campaigns are so closely intertwined that it would be more efficient to keep that together."

Merger of election, ethics agencies stirs criticism

Efforts to merge and cut funding for three agencies responsible for oversight of ethics, campaign finance and lobbying activities in state government are one step closer to becoming reality.

Lawmakers are pushing to combine the State Board of Elections, the State Ethics Commission and the division of the Secretary of State's office that monitors the lobbyists' spending into a new body known as the State Board of Elections and Ethics. This agency would be created by January and would be under the control of General Assembly leaders.

The proposed merger is a part of the Senate's proposed budget and would cut more than $1.4 million and 20 positions, 15 of which are currently filled. Of the new Board's nine positions, six would be elected by legislators.

The proposal, also a part of the House budget, has attracted criticism. The merger would hurt not only the agencies, but would be a major blow to transparency in state government, warns Democracy North Carolina, a non-partisan watchdog group.

"The way this merger is being pushed so rapidly, crammed inside a budget bill without a thorough study, is completely irresponsible and highly suspicious," said executive director Bob Hall, in a prepared statement. "You have to wonder if the Republicans are trying to cripple these agencies and throw them into a state of confusion during the upcoming election."

Report: Lobbyist tried to bribe

Rick GlazierA lobbyist reportedly attempted to bribe a legislator to kill a bill.

The joint Legislative Ethics Committee reported today that it received a question from a lawmaker who had been approached by a lobbyist over a bill.

According to ethics co-chair Rep. Rick Glazier, the lobbyist told the legislator that a client would forgive a substantial debt owed by one of the legislator's constituents if he killed a bill he had sponsored.

The lawmaker, whose identity has not been revealed, then approached the ethics committee, asking what he should do.

After multiple emergency sessions, the 11-member ethics committee told the lawmaker that ethically he could continue with the bill, but as a practical matter he might want a cosponsor to do the heavy lifting on the floor.

Glazier said he was restricted by ethics rules from naming the legislator or the lobbyist, and the committee has no authority over lobbyists. However, he said that it can refer a case to law enforcement when appropriate, although it cannot confirm if it has.

He also praised the lawmaker for contacting the committee.

"The legislator absolutely did the right thing," he said.

Update: Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, would not confirm whether they had received a referral.

"We can't comment on it at this time," she said.

Second Update: House Speaker Joe Hackney said he learned of the opinion earlier this week. All four caucuses were briefed on the issue.

Hackney declined to name any of the people involved.

"The ethics process which we set up ... worked exactly the way they were supposed to," he said. 

What Willis has said in the past

Andy WillisWill any of Andy Willis' past lobbying efforts come back to haunt him?

Not likely. As a chief lobbyist for N.C. State and the University of North Carolina system, the newly appointed legislative liaison for Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue was not in charge of too many controversial things.

The only controversial issue he lobbied for was a national biodefense facility in Butner that some residents feared could spread deadly pathogens.

As a spokesman for UNC, Willis said that security concerns were valid, but the facility would be safe, noting that Triangle-area labs have handled hazardous material for decades.

"People are going to drop test tubes," he said in a Dec. 22, 2007, article in the N&O. He compared the facility to "a safe within a 6-inch cement box within a 6-inch cement box in a submarine down in the Atlantic Ocean."

That remark may grate among opponents of the proposed facility, though it's something of a moot point now that the federal government has recommended a Kansas site instead.

In other articles, Willis has been quoted being grateful for state higher education funding, explaining why the UNC system has so many vacant jobs and noting that UNC leaders did not ask for athletic scholarships in the state budget.

An offhand remark in a Jan. 21, 2007, N&O article did draw a complaint.

"I'm not sure business will change that much," Willis said of newly instituted ethics rules. "Even though the perception is that lobbyists wine and dine people, 99 percent of the business takes place at the legislature."

A Carrboro woman criticized the quote in a letter to the editor the next week.

N.C. drops a notch on 'integrity' ranking

In the six years since the Better Government Association first rated the states for its "integrity index," North Carolina has added an ethics law for the executive branch and banned lobbyists from offering golf trips, Super Bowl tickets and other expensive perks to state lawmakers.

But the changes had little effect on North Carolina's rank, Dan Kane reports. In fact, it dropped a spot from 22nd to 23rd place in a recently released report.

The association, a Chicago-based watchdog, rates the states on three core principles — transparency, accountability and limits on campaign contributions, gifts and other perks. States that  have strong laws for freedom of information, whistleblower protection, campaign finance, open meetings and conflict-of-interest disclosures fare best.

North Carolina may have dropped a notch because the association changed its ranking system. In the 2002 index, the association rated states for limits on gifts. This time around, the association dropped the rating, saying that the loopholes many states have regarding such perks makes it hard to evaluate which states have the best practices.

That was an area in which North Carolina made significant strides after the scandals that put House Speaker Jim Black in prison.

In other areas, the index found that North Carolina ranked 40th in making information public, 19th in whistleblower protection, 14th in campaign finance accountability, 29th on open meetings and 19th on conflict of interest disclosure.

"North Carolina has come a long way, but obviously we still have a lot of work to do," said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, which pushed for many of the reforms enacted in the past few years.

McCrory, Perdue to talk ethics

Beverly Perdue and Pat McCrory have agreed to take questions about ethics, lobbying and campaign fundraising at a forum next month sponsored by the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying Government Reform.

The forum begins 11 a.m. Sept. 16 at the Marbles Museum in downtown Raleigh. Each of the gubernatorial candidate will appear individually, give a statement and then take questions, reports Dan Kane.

Jane Pinsky, the coalition's director, said some of the issues the two candidates are likely to tackle include curbing lobbyists' roles in raising campaign money, full disclosure of major campaign fundraising, increasing the openness of government meetings and the availability of legislative documents, and preventing lawmakers from soliciting lobbyists to contribute to not-for-profits.

Reform group attacks ethics change

The ethics and lobbying reforms passed two years ago allow lobbyists to provide food and drink for lawmakers at "public events."

But the events aren't actually open to the public unless the lobbyist wants it so. Nor does the public find out about them until after they've taken place, when lobbying reports are filed, Dan Kane reports.

Legislation that passed the House this week takes a baby step forward on the issue, but the fix isn't pleasing open government advocates. The bill requires a sign be posted in front of the building if the event is open to the public.

Jane Pinsky, executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Governmental Ethics Reform, said lawmakers could follow the practices of Tennessee and Maryland, which report legislative gatherings sponsored by lobbyists at least five days before the event.

"If Tennessee can put it out, if Maryland can publish it, there's no reason North Carolina can't," she said.

The purpose of advance notice, she said, is so the public knows who is trying to persuade lawmakers at the time legislation is in play.

Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said he wasn't sure Tennessee and Maryland's practices would work in North Carolina. He said he also had security concerns with advance notification of lobbyist sponsored events.

The bill, which includes other fixes to the reform laws, now moves to the Senate for consideration.

A new lobbyist for reform

The N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Governmental Ethics Reform has a new executive director, Jane Pinsky, who has a long history as a lobbyist.

Since coming to North Carolina in 1989, Pinsky has lobbied for a number of public and private organizations, ranging from AAA of the Carolinas to the N.C. Foundation for Nursing, reports Dan Kane.

Pinsky has also lobbied the federal government on behalf of the American Nurses Association and the National Women's Employment Project, and served as deputy director for NARAL, formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League.

The coalition was formed more than two years ago to push for more stringent lobbying, ethics and campaign finance laws.

Lawmakers have acted on many of the coalition's goals, partly in response to the scandals involving former House Speaker Jim Black, who is now serving a five-year prison sentence for public corruption.

State ethics scuffle

The state Ethics Commission objects to proposed lobbying rules.

At a hearing this afternoon, lobbying attorney Susan Lundberg said some of the rules proposed by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall would infringe on the Ethics Commission's work.

The commission and the secretary both oversee lobbying, but they have different duties. Lundberg said that some of the rules would create confusion because they duplicate regulations and legal definitions that the Ethics Commission has followed.

She said the confusion could lead to less compliance among lobbyists because of misunderstandings caused by conflicting rules.

Marshall said she would take public comment on the rules until Aug. 31. They may be sent to N.C. Secretary of State, Attn: Ann Wall, P.O. Box 29622, Raleigh, N.C. 27626-0622, or rules@sosnc.com.

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da

As Jim Black was sentenced, life went on at Jones Street.

* Gov. Mike Easley signed a $20.7 billion budget bill, calling it "absolutely magnificent." Republican leaders criticized the budget for spending too much. (N&O)

* The House passed an anti-gang bill that would make it a felony to recruit members or do drive-by shootings, but it looks like it won't pass the Senate in time. (N&O)

* Counties are just starting to sort through what the possibility of a transfer tax could mean to them. Some homeowners worry about the effect on their investments. (Char-O)

* The Senate made more than 40 minor changes to ethics and lobbying regulations and campaign finance reporting. The bills now head to the House. (AP)

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