Raleigh, N.C. — At least four of Gov. Roy Cooper's cabinet nominees have been cautioned about potential – but not "actual" – conflicts of interest they should steer clear of while serving as the heads of state agencies.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, Anthony Copeland, Susi Hamilton and Michael Regan, who have been tapped to head the departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Natural and Cultural Resources and Environmental Quality, respectively, all received letters from North Carolina's State Ethics Commission saying reviewers found the "potential for a conflict of interest" due either to properties they own or certain business relationships.
However, those same letters emphasize that regulators found nothing that would disqualify those cabinet members from serving. Such evaluations are commonplace for state officials, but these evaluations are grist for an ongoing dispute between Cooper and lawmakers over a new law that subjects cabinet nominees to Senate approval.
"Governor Cooper has appointed a diverse cabinet with deep experience in their respective fields," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said. "These leaders have publicly reported their economic interests in accordance with state law, and Governor Cooper is confident that they will serve North Carolina with distinction."
Senators say the items highlighted by the Ethics Commission are the kind of potential problems they would like to ask about during planned confirmation hearings, which Cooper has sued to halt.
"That's the sort of thing I think it's fair for us to inquire about," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Thursday.
Berger, R-Rockingham, and other senators have said they want to reschedule cabinet confirmation hearings in light of a recent court order removing an injunction on the process. Cooper and his administration say that, while a three-judge panel has refused to grant a preliminary injunction to the law, that same panel has made clear confirmation hearings should go forward.
Cooper has characterized the new law, put in place by Republican lawmakers weeks after he ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last year, as an unconstitutional "power grab" motivated by partisan pique more than by any sense of responsibility.
But Republican lawmakers insist the new measure is a nonpartisan effort aimed at curbing conflicts that erupted without notice during Democratic and Republican administrations over the past 20 years:
- McCrory DEQ Secretary John Skvarla found his agency awarding a $1.2 million contract to his former company within six months of his taking office.
- McCrory DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos gave a lucrative job to a business associate of her husband.
- DHHS Secretary Lanier Cansler, who served under Gov. Bev Perdue, had to explain a cost overrun on a contract with a company for which he used to be a consultant.
- Gov. Jim Hunt was forced to remove Transportation Secretary Garland Garrett after evidence surfaced that Garrett steered appointments in construction projects based on political patronage than on pressing priorities.
Avoiding potential conflicts
Three of Cooper's cabinet secretaries – the heads of Administration, Military and Veterans Affairs and Public Safety – were found to have no potential conflicts, while Transportation Secretary Jim Trogden has not yet received his Ethics Commission review, according to the Governor's Office. Nominees to lead the Revenue and Information Technology departments haven't been named yet.
Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said that senators have been "given the green light" to push ahead with confirmation of Cooper's nominees. Cooper's lawyers argue that the governor has until May to give lawmakers official notice of his appointments.
"As the court found on Monday, the Senate cannot begin their ‘advise and consent’ process until Governor Cooper formally submits his cabinet to the legislature. By statute, the governor has until May 15 to do so," Porter said.
Rabon says that notion defies common sense.
"If you put your hand on the Bible and you're sworn in, you're getting a paycheck and the two best newspapers in the area have you on the front page, then you're probably who we think you are," Rabon said.
Regardless of the legal push and pull between Cooper and state lawmakers, these sorts of evaluations and warnings about potential conflicts are common features in North Carolina's ethics monitoring system, ethics experts say. Nothing in the cabinet members' evaluations would keep them from serving, but government watchdogs say they should be sure to take steps to ensure they navigate around potential problems by delegating certain decisions or otherwise drawing attention to the issue when it arises.
"The perception of transparency is as important as actual conflicts," said Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition of Lobbying and Government Reform, a nonprofit group that lobbies for open-government policies. "The people of North Carolina need our elected officials to go to extremes to make sure they are transparent."
Ethics Commission reviews are largely based on statements of economic interest the officials file before they take office. Those forms list outside business activities, land ownership, the business relationships of spouses and other financial relationships an official might have.
For example, Hamilton noted on her form that her husband, Stephen, works for Wilmington's parks department. The commission cited that fact in its letter evaluating Hamilton. By and large, the conflicts cited by the commission include experience that would equip people for their posts:
- Cohen's husband is a partner in a law firm with a health care practice area, although he primarily handles matters related to federal health policy.
- Copeland is a partner with the Williams Mullen law firm, where his practice focused on economic development.
- Hamilton is a board member for the Cucalorus Film Festival, which has received grants from the North Carolina Arts Council, which is in turn overseen by the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources.
- Regan headed his own environmental consulting firm and was a vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit that lobbies for environmental preservation.