Grading NC state government ethics. Is a D too generous?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 19, 2015

By Gerrick Brenner

Special to the Post

How fitting it was last week that the Center for Public Integrity gave North Carolina a grade of D in a nationwide State Integrity Investigation. Just recently, Gov. Pat McCrory announced that the State Ethics Commission had dismissed two complaints which spotlighted his repeated failure to disclose conflicts of interest. The same study also gave the Ethics Commission a D grade. The dismissed complaints likely had no influence on the poor grade, but they both underscore a state government ethics process which is derailed, discredited, and in need of repair.

McCrory’s pattern of omitting key conflicts of interest from his ethics forms has been so egregious, it is hard to believe his “mistakes” were not intentional. McCrory failed to disclose ownership of over $10,000 of Duke Energy stock. McCrory failed to disclose over $185,000 of outside income, paid after he was sworn into office. McCrory also failed to report a series of fancy hotel stays paid by others.

The governor chalks it all up to confusing forms, differences in legal opinion, and honest mistakes. Meanwhile, McCrory’s staff launched an attack on the media and messenger, similar to some Presidential candidates.

The governor’s pattern of omissions is serious, because if they were intentional, then he broke the law and committed a crime. Given the simplicity of some of the disclosure requirements, claims of a governor making an honest mistake, and then again, and then yet again, are simply incredible to believe.

Even more disappointing, the Ethics Commission dismissed the McCrory complaints with very little explanation other than to say they found “no probable cause” to warrant further investigation. The key question for the Ethics Commission was this: did the governor intentionally hide conflicts of interest from his ethics forms? The Ethics Commission offered no assurances as to how hard they tried to answer that question. What did the Commission’s investigation actually entail? The public has no real indication.

Of course, the governor could have boosted public trust in the ethics investigation by allowing the case file to be open to the public. McCrory, after all, claimed in July that his “administration is a champion of transparency,” as media outlets had just sued to force McCrory to comply with the state’s open records act. McCrory (or his lawyer) also filed a written response to the ethics complaints, and McCrory could have at least publicly release that official response. He still could, but predictably, McCrory has kept that response hidden as well.

If the governor has been so wrongfully maligned in a “smear campaign” as he described, and if he has nothing to hide, why would McCrory be so reluctant to keep his ethics case hidden from the public? In trying to dismiss claims that he has hidden conflicts of interest, the governor again retreats to his true instinct for secrecy. McCrory’s reaction only proves the point. He is a governor who is hiding important information from the public.

The bottomline is the Ethics Commission’s ruling for Pat McCrory was a good day for politicians who want to work in the ethical shadows. It was a bad day for voters who want transparency in their state government. And North Carolina’s grade of D in a State Integrity Investigation may be deserved. Given current events, it may be a little generous.

Garrick Brenner is executive director at Progress North Carolina