In politics as in life, there are rules. And then there are the unwritten rules that often prove far more troublesome. One of the latter is that perception equals reality. That’s especially true when an elected official’s business ties overlap with his duties to appoint commissions that regulate those businesses.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s press office has blasted an Associated Press report about payouts he and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., received as they left the board of Tree.com, the Charlotte-based parent company of Lending Tree. Both had served on the Tree.com board and resigned their posts after taking office.
McCrory put in his resignation Jan. 4, 2009, the day before he became governor, but it was not effective until after the Jan. 30 Tree.com board meeting. At that meeting the board took special action allowing him to leave with $171,071 in stock, although he was not vested. Sanford got a smaller six-figure payout in a similar fashion in May 2013. The payments and the timing are not in dispute; the mortgage broker defends the payments as common practice in the business world and says they were based on performance, not politics.
The AP reported that McCrory did not fully disclose his payments from Tree.com, and the story points out the timing, among other things. The AP is standing by its report; the governor’s office says it was misleading, and a news release contained a detailed list of disputed facts. The governor contends that he has demonstrated the highest legal and ethical standards in filing disclosure reports and in carrying out his duties.
In an era when elected officials’ every move is subject to scrutiny and criticism, it’s easy to understand McCrory’s frustration. Naturally, Democrats were quick to latch onto the story, as have several national news outlets.
There is no evidence at this point that McCrory’s service on the Tree.com board or the payout influenced his appointments to the banking commission, which regulates financial institutions, or that it has affected or will influence enforcement actions.
But there is a cautious reminder here that perceptions matter.
“It’s one of those things that creates a smell,” said Carter Wrenn, the Republican political strategist best known for his work with the late Sen. Jesse Helms. “If the payment was for legitimate work and it didn’t have anything to do with politics, that would be OK. But you’re better off to disclose it, because it’s going to raise questions. …”
And then there’s this: The governor’s re-election campaign and the N.C. Republican Party immediately turned the report into a fundraising drive to fight the “smear campaign,” as party Chairman Claude Pope Jr. called it in an email Thursday. Perception-wise, it smacks of unabashed political opportunism, which is not the desirable impression to create when attempting to defend one’s honor.