N.C. leaders should be models of public trust, not rule dodgers

Published September 3, 2020


When voters give politicians the opportunity for public service they expect, quite reasonably, those individuals to act for the public good.

Too often, as witnessed in North Carolina courtrooms in recent days, that is not the case. This is neither new nor the exclusive purview of any particular partisan affiliation.

Abuse and neglect of the public trust. It is the soaring hypocrisy of our state’s most powerful leaders as they skirt and violate laws while at the same time determining the rules, regulations and laws that oversee the conduct of all citizens. They should be role models for fair and honest play, not Exhibit No. 1 for dodging rules and exploiting loopholes.

Republican David Lewis, the powerful House Rules Committee chairman, was the gatekeeper of every bill. He determined if a bill did, or did not, get a vote in the state House of Representatives.

Thursday Lewis agreed in federal court to “waive indictment by a grand jury and plead guilty” to making a false statement to a bank and failing to file a federal tax return. While the two offenses carry a total of up to 31 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines, a plea deal says that prosecutors agree to “recommend a sentence that does not include an active term of incarceration.” 

 We assume state prosecutors are reviewing whether Lewis filed his North Carolina taxes and whether his actions may have violated any other state laws. If not, they must and then publicly report their findings.

Revelation of the deal Lewis cut came a day after a federal judge sentenced former congressman Robin Hayes for his role in one of the state’s biggest political corruption scandals. While Hayes, one of the state’s most prominent public officials and a state GOP chair, was indicted on several serious corruption charges he agreed to help investigators and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Last week he was sentenced to probation and apologized (https://www.charlotteobserver.com/article245014905.html) for his actions.  Meanwhile Durham billionaire Greg Lindberg, the primary perpetrator of a scheme to bribe State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, received more than seven years in prison.

These kinds of abuses are not limited to any single political party. Former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black was sent to federal prison on corruption charges. Since then at least four other former legislators have been convicted on public corruption-related charges.

Short of legal prosecution, there is little significant check on North Carolina legislators’ behavior. Ethics and campaign finance rules are too lax and invite abuse. State rules allow officeholders to use campaign funds for “expenditures resulting from holding public office.”

Senate Leader Phil Berger – often described as the state’s most powerful legislator – was able to use campaign donations and state per-diem funds to basically pay rent on a home he owned in Raleigh and then sell it and personally pocket the profits. It was only AFTER Berger’s scheme was disclosed that the state Board of Elections enacted rules to prohibit the use of campaign dollars in this way and the Legislative Ethics Committee developed "guidance” that describes such action as “unethical.”

It is past time that North Carolina move away from the notion that government service was an opportunity, with access to insider information, to exploit it for personal and partisan gain.

Lewis said he wanted to “put an unfortunate chapter behind me.” He apologized for his mistakes. But his statement didn’t apologize for abusing the privileged role he’d been granted by voters for the more than 17 years he served in the legislature. He should apologize to those voters for failing the trust they placed in him and for abusing his office and campaign to help himself.

The General Assembly in particular and more broadly state government, needs a thorough examination of ethics standards for legislators, all other elected and appointed state and local officials. Citizens must be assured that the only interest of public officials is the betterment of the state and its people NOT their personal political and economic enrichment.

Additionally, how state political parties can direct contributed funds to specific candidates -- and how those parties can raise and spend money -- needs to be clarified to avoid the problems brought to light by Lindberg’s efforts to use campaign money to bribe the state insurance commissioner.

Violating the public trust. That is the true tragedy recently played out in courtrooms last week.