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Editorial: Leading way on disclosure

When public officials fudge ó or openly flout ó campaign finance disclosure requirements, the media and other watchdog groups are quick to pounce ó and rightfully so. Voters have a right to know where candidates (especially incumbent elected officials) are getting their campaign dollars or other support, whether it’s hard-cash contributions, free airplane travel or some other freebie that might grease the revolving doors of access and influence.
By the same token, however, we also should raise a loud cheer for elected officials who go beyond what’s required when it comes to disclosure. That’s the idea behind the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina’s Sunshine Awards. These awards, given every two years, are bestowed on state legislators who provide “superior” reports listing details about campaign expenses and donations.
The most recent awards, announced last week, identify 32 N.C. representatives and senators who fit that description. Although no Rowan County representatives made the list, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, whose district includes Cabarrus and Iredell counties, and Rep. Hugh Holliman of Davidson County got gold stars for their disclosure reports. The fact that a legislator didn’t win an award doesn’t mean he or she is doing something wrong; they just didn’t earn the “superior” rating this time around.
“Our staff and interns evaluated the reports of all 170 legislators elected in 2008 and found these 32 went well beyond the minimum of the law to give the public valuable information about where they get their campaign money and how it’s spent,” said Bob Hall, the group’s executive director. “The quality of reporting has greatly improved in the past five years and dozens of legislators are doing a good job, especially with the help of well-trained campaign treasurers.”
Besides the example set by these legislators, we’ve also seen some high-ranking state officials take the initiative on openness and accountability. Gov. Beverly Perdue issued an executive order extending the state’s gift ban to cover all executive branch employees under the Office of the Governor and Cabinet departments. State Treasurer Janet Cowell ousted her chief investment officer over questions about gifts and lobbying and then followed that up with several initiatives designed to increase transparency and strengthen oversight for the state’s $60 billion public pension fund. House Speaker Joe Hackney called for increased ethics and campaign finance training for Democratic House members and supported new ethics and public campaign financing legislation.
On the negative side, of course, are the ongoing investigations into the campaign-finance practices and other activities of former Gov. Mike Easley, including questions about coastal real-estate deals and whether environmental regulators were pressured to issue permits to two developers with ties to Easley. As Hall notes, North Carolina has made “real progress” when it comes to openness in government, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

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