Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Transparency in government is the best policy. That’s why North Carolina recently revamped its ethics and lobbying laws so that citizens would have more information about links between lobbyists and legislators, as well as more information about complaints of impropriety involving state officials.
So why is it that we currently have two murky situations lingering in Raleigh, smelling up the place like month-old mackerel?
One case involves a $500,000 loan extended to former House Speaker Jim Black. This is what’s known so far: Back in 2000, an as-yet unidentified lobbyist wrote Black a check for a half million bucks, supposedly to help him with a private real-estate transaction. When the deal fell through, Black repaid the loan. Perhaps some believe that should be the end of the story ó that we should let this go as just one more Black mark on the former’s speaker reign in the House. Technically speaking, taking the loan wasn’t illegal back then (although it would be now), and Black is already headed off for a well-deserved stay in prison.
But a $500,000 loan from a lobbyist raises too many troublesome questions to ignore. Who was the lobbyist? Who employed him or her? Who else was involved in brokering the deal? There’s more at stake here than legal technicalities. The Jim Black scandal has seriously undermined the legislature’s credibility. When House officials appear reluctant to divulge details on another chapter in the saga, it compounds the erosion of trust. If we truly had transparency, state legislators would be willing to provide more information, even to the point of going beyond what the law requires. Unless, that is, they have something to hide.
Same thing goes for the abrupt resignation of Rep. David Almond (R-Stanly). Almond gave up his seat in the House last week. Nobody has said why, on the record. But apparently a complaint was filed with the House speaker’s office involving allegations of wrongdoing. A day before Almond’s resignation, the House’s GOP caucus said it was looking into accusations of “serious, improper behavior.”
Citing “legislative immunity,” House leaders have since refused to divulge the nature of the accusations, who made them, how long ago they were made, what investigative actions ensued or other relevant details. Perhaps politer company would sniff and say this is a personal matter, best left to die a quiet death. But when personal matters become serious enough to trigger the resignation of a sitting House member, the personal becomes a matter of public interest. Discretion is secondary to citizens’ right to know what the complaint was about and, of equal importance, how officials handled it.
North Carolina has made some major improvements in its public disclosure laws in recent years, and most legislators make a sincere attempt to abide by them. But sometimes, in the shadowy hollows and fetid lagoons of the legislature, things are still clear as mud.