Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday vetoed a bill that would curb undercover investigations of workplaces, siding with animal rights groups and the AARP, which said it would block employees from blowing the whistle on malfeasance in workplaces ranging from factory farms to nursing homes.
Dubbed an "ag-gag" measure by Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society and other groups, the measure sought to curb the practice of obtaining a job in order to film or steal information rather than actually seeking employment.
"This practice is unethical and unfair to employers, and is a particular problem for our agricultural industry," McCrory said in a statement to announce his veto.
But both McCrory and opponents of House Bill 405 said the measure could stop honest employees from coming forward when they spot illegal or unethical activity.
"House Bill 405 will create new risks for workers, older adults, families and children because it extends to all industries, including nursing homes, hospitals, group homes, medical practices, charter and private schools, day care centers and so forth," according to a statement issued by a spokesman for AARP.
McCrory cited similar concerns in his veto message.
"I am concerned that subjecting these employees to potential civil penalties will create an environment that discourages them from reporting illegal activities," he said, citing provisions that would allow an employer to sue for damages against whistleblowers.
McCrory pointed out that he on Tuesday signed Burt's Law, which encourage workers at mental health group homes to come forward if they see sexual abuse taking place.
"In good conscience, I cannot sign Burt’s Law and then in the same week turn around and sign contradictory legislation," he said. "I encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this bill as soon as possible and add protections for those employees who report illegal activities directly and confidentially to the proper authorities."
Legislative backers of the bill responded to McCrory's veto message with disappointment.
"Property protection is a serious issue that faces North Carolina companies of all sizes every single day ... and currently, weak laws in our state put businesses and the privacy of their customers at serious risk,” bill sponsor Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, said in a statement. "The bill is narrowly focused on illegal activities not on infringing on the liberties of whistleblowers or press.
"I am extremely disappointed in Gov. McCrory’s decision to veto a bill that defends private property rights and puts teeth into our trespass laws – and one that received broad, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate," Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said in a statement. "I plan to do all I can to encourage my legislative colleagues to override the veto and ensure this important bill is enacted into law."
Even if the bill is re-drafted as McCrory wishes, it may not assuage the concerns of journalism organizations and animal rights groups, which fear they could be face lawsuits for exposing misdeeds to the public rather than reporting to the "proper authorities."
In order to override a veto, lawmakers would have to muster a three-fifths of those voting in both the House and the Senate. House Bill 405 easily cleared that threshold in both chambers when it initially passed. It's unclear whether McCrory's objections could muster new opposition to the bill.
The veto was the second in two days for McCrory. On Thursday, he sent Senate Bill 2 back to lawmakers, saying public employees need to carry out the duties of their offices. The bill would have given magistrates and some county employees opposed to same-sex marriage a way to avoid issuing marriage licenses to and presiding over the weddings of gay couples.