The State Ethics Commission is asking a Superior Court judge to prevent State Auditor Les Merritt from investigating a claim of preferential treatment for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic nominee for governor.
The suit claims that Merritt's office has a conflict of interest because its investigations chief, Frank Perry, left the ethics commission a year ago. The suit also claims that Merritt, a Republican seeking re-election, "denigrated" the commission in an hour-long interview with a radio station.
It is a rare case in which one state agency is suing another, reports Dan Kane.
"The commission welcomes an independent and impartial investigation by an appropriate entity that is free from actual and/or perceived conflicts of interest," the suit said.
More after the jump.
The auditor began investigating the commission after receiving a hotline tip in the fall of 2007 that Will Polk, Perdue's general counsel, visited the office and was allowed to look at her financial disclosure statements alone in a closed office. Ethics commission officials said visitors typically review the files in an open conference room, at times with a staffer observing, but in Polk's case the conference room was in use, so he was allowed to use a vacant office.
The financial disclosure statements are intended to inform the public about possible and potential conflicts of interest that public officials may have. Recent scandals in state government led to a new ethics law that requires public officials to disclose their financial interests, and the officials can face criminal penalties for lying or providing misleading information on their statements.
The News & Observer inquired about Polk's visit and found that a staffer, Amanda Thaxton, had made a notation about Polk's closed-door review in an electronic visitor's log. That notation was later removed by Kathleen Edwards, an assistant commission director, who said it didn't belong in the log.
Hours after the N&O's initial inquiry about the log, commission Executive Director Perry Newson fired Thaxton. She said she was given no explanation for the firing, and thinks it was in part retaliation for making the notation.
Newson has said Thaxton was not fired in retaliation. Newson could not immediately be reached for comment today.
Kris Bailey, the deputy state auditor leading the investigation, said the lawsuit is without merit. He said that Perry has recused himself from the case and that the commission is misrepresenting Merritt's radio interview.
"The issue here is that the state auditor's office is conducting an investigation that I believe we are by statute obligated to conduct," Bailey said. "I believe that at the end of the day, they don't want this investigation completed, therefore they are not making people and records available. We believe there needs to be cooperation and transparency."
The commission suggests that the investigation be turned over to the "Legislative Services Officer." That would be George Hall, the longtime legislative services director. He does not typically conduct investigations.