Bob Hall: Pay the money back, Sen. Berger

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 21, 2020

By Bob Hall

Do you have the nerve to blow the whistle when the boss is doing something unethical?

Members of the NC Legislative Ethics Committee are about to face that challenge.

The committee recently reminded lawmakers that they must not violate the state constitution’s ban on using public money for private benefit. But that’s exactly what North Carolina’s most powerful legislator, Sen. Philip E. Berger, has been doing for years, according to a complaint now before the committee.

The facts in the complaint are not in dispute.

Like most legislators, Sen. Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, has requested per-diem payments from the General Assembly for his lodging while in Raleigh on legislative business; he collected over $50,000 for housing expenses from June 2016 through May 2020.

But here’s the problem: Berger also received monthly reimbursements for the same housing from his campaign committee — a total of $72,000 during the same four-year period for “rent” in Raleigh. In other words, Sen. Berger collected money from the General Assembly he didn’t need for his job — and that’s an apparent violation of Article V of the North Carolina Constitution which says public money must be spent for a public purpose, not for personal gain.

The Legislative Ethics Committee cited that constitutional provision in a May 2020 memo titled “Ethical Principle and Guidance 11.” In a series of warnings, the memo said, “It is unethical for a legislator to accept per diem from the General Assembly for lodging and receive reimbursement for the same lodging from some other source.”

The memo continues, “Any legislator who has inappropriately accepted the subsistence [housing] allowance or travel allowance may repay such amounts to the Legislative Services Office.”

Berger stopped taking housing money from both his campaign and the General Assembly after the memo appeared. But unless the Ethics Committee takes action against the Senate boss, he may avoid repaying the $50,000 he took in per diems.

“It is not reasonable to expect somebody following the rules for years to take retroactive action whenever there’s a change in rules,” Berger’s spokesperson told the Associated Press.

Actually, there’s never been a rule to let legislators take taxpayer dollars for expenses they didn’t incur. That’s been against the constitution for 150 years, as well as against the State Government Ethics Act, which bars officials from using their public office for personal profit.

As a backbench Republican, Sen. Berger strongly supported the Ethics Act when it passed in 2006 following a scandal that put the Democratic House Speaker in prison. He promoted other “good government” reforms at the time, but something changed after Republicans won control of the state Senate and Phil Berger became Senate President Pro Tem in 2011.

In 2012, he began charging his campaign $1,200 a month (later upped to $1,500) for “rent [and] office services” for his small law office, a converted 1,400-square-foot house he owned in Eden.

Then he put his wife on the General Assembly payroll as one of his legislative assistants.

Then he began charging his campaign $1,500 a month for housing in Raleigh while also charging the government for lodging. In fact, he owned the house in Raleigh, sold it for a profit of $80,000 in 2019, then bought a condo, and continued taking money for housing from his campaign and taxpayers until this May.

Altogether, Sen. Berger has collected more than $325,000 for his Raleigh housing and Eden office.

The Legislative Ethics Committee needs to muster the courage to enforce the Ethics Act and state constitution. It must at least demand a refund of the $50,000 in per diems that Phil Berger took from taxpayers.

Bob Hall has filed numerous complaints in the past three decades about the misconduct of Democratic and Republican donors, parties and politicians, including Sen. Phil Berger.