2 NC lawmakers subject of new ethics complaints on expenses

Published 3:03 am Tuesday, October 6, 2020

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — A campaign finance reform advocate lodged ethics complaints on Monday against two more Republican lawmakers, alleging they wrongly accepted state funds for expenses related to North Carolina legislative duties that also got paid for by their campaigns.

The Legislative Ethics Committee filings made by Bob Hall, the retired executive director of voting rights group Democracy North Carolina, focus on Reps. Josh Dobson of McDowell County and John Torbett of Gaston County.

Dobson is a top House budget-writer who is the GOP nominee this fall for state labor commissioner. He called the complaint’s filing politically motivated before an election. Torbett leads several House transportation panels and is seeking reelection.

Each lawmaker has received tens of thousands of dollars since 2017 from the legislature to cover housing, food and travel expenses when they come to Raleigh, according to Hall, citing data from General Assembly records. Lawmakers living outside the Raleigh area routinely receive travel allowances and $104 per-day payments to cover costs of being a legislator.

But Hall said information from the two legislators’ campaign committees show expenses paid from them for Raleigh apartments, hotels and related utilities during the same time period.

This is improper “double-dipping,” according to Hall, and the state funds should be ordered to be returned. In May, the ethics committee issued new guidance telling legislators it was “unethical” for a lawmaker to receive expense checks to cover lodging expenses while serving in Raleigh if the lawmaker gets them covered through another source.

Some of the campaign expenses are dated after May 20, the date on the new guidance, Hall’s complaint says.

“It seems clearly unethical and a violation of the law against using your public office for private gain,” Hall said in a news release seeking an investigation by the ethics panel, which is composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

The guidance came after complaints Hall filed starting last year against state Senate leader Phil Berger over the use of his campaign committee’s dollars to cover mortgage payments for a house Berger and his wife owned. The State Board of Elections separately barred the practice, which Berger used lawfully for years.

The ethics guidance says any legislator who “has inappropriately accepted” the per diem can repay those amounts.

Dobson said in an emailed statement that he is reviewing the complaint and will answer any questions asked by the ethics committee.

“To have your name smeared 29 days before a statewide election clearly for political gain and in hopes that a headline article might end up on a mailer is sad,” Dobson said.

Torbett has not returned a voicemail message left on his cellphone Monday.

Hall asked the ethics committee in August to demand Berger refund the per diem received for housing that was paid with campaign dollars. The committee dismissed that complaint last month, saying it had no jurisdiction in the matter. Hall’s latest complaints take a different tack.

Hall said Monday that other legislators have received taxpayer-funded expense checks while campaign money also covered expenses. He said Dobson and Torbett are among the largest recipients.