Raleigh, N.C. — Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, has filed an ethics complaint against fellow committee chairman Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, in a spat over whether private companies or state workers should tow cars seized from certain drunken driving offenders.
The complaint, filed with the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, is not a public record, but Cleveland confirmed in an interview Friday that he had recently filed it.
"I thought we had an agreement," Cleveland said, adding that Lewis had essentially gutted a measure that would have given the state's Surplus Property Office the ability to tow vehicles from repeat driving while impaired offenders.
Lewis does not deny taking the action but said he had good reason and that Cleveland not only had plenty of notice but voted for a version of the bill that contained the measure to which he now objects.
"I am terribly disappointed and surprised that someone I have had respect for, like Rep. Cleveland, would essentially use the ethics process to try and advance a policy argument that I believe is seriously flawed," Lewis said.
Lewis added he is convinced that that spat is an outgrowth of a larger feud between different factions of House Republicans.
Proposed changes shot down
Martin Edwards & Associates of Linden has long held a state contract to tow and store cars impounded from repeat DWI offenders. The company's owner, Rickie Day, is a friend and campaign donor to Lewis.
Cleveland, a budget subcommittee chairman with jurisdiction over the Department of Administration, had pushed a measure this year that would have ended the company's contract. His measure would have allowed the state's Surplus Property Office to carry out the towing work.
Lewis sidelined that measure, but Cleveland managed to include the language in the broader budget bill.
During the closing days of the legislative session, the House passed a technical corrections measure that gutted Cleveland's bill and keeps the towing work in private sector hands. The News & Observer first reported the technical corrections provision and Lewis' links to Day.
"I think he did something wrong," Cleveland said of Lewis.
Asked whether he thought Lewis did so at the behest of a campaign donor, Cleveland said, "That's for the Ethics Committee to decide."
Lewis said that he has not seen a copy of the complaint, but he insists he did nothing wrong. He said the Department of Administration could not show it was capable of doing the towing work and failed to produce a business plan when asked.
"They don't have the tow trucks," Lewis said. "Most state employees don't work at 2 a.m. when they're going out and getting these cars."
A fight among Republicans
It is unusual for lawmakers to file ethics complaints against one another, much less long-time colleagues and committee chairmen who are putatively part of the same leadership team.
Lewis insisted that Cleveland's action was tied up in a larger fight among factions of House Republicans. He said that he first learned of the complaint via a Twitter account called @NConservatives, which appears to speak for a hard-line faction of the Republicans who control the House. Cleveland signed on to a budget statement distributed by the account.
Members of the group have been critical of Lewis, House Speaker Tim Moore and other members of House leadership. Another member of the group, Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, blasted Moore, R-Cleveland, and his leadership on a number of matters, including the budget, as part of his campaign filing announcement this month.
"This is obviously part of a broader GOP House caucus feud," Lewis said.
Asked why he filed the complaint, Cleveland said he debated the decision but concluded that the unusual move was necessary.
"I thought long and hard about this and struggled with it," Cleveland said, saying his conscience wouldn't let him do nothing. "I have to look at myself when I shave in the morning."