NC Ethics Commission: Sex acts don't violate lobbyist gift ban

An advisory opinion by the N.C. Ethics Commission says that sex acts do not constitute "things of value" and therefore do not trigger gift prohibitions in the state's lobbying laws.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Sexual acts between lobbyists and a state official covered by North Carolina's state ethics act do not constitute a "reportable expenditure" or "things of value," according to a ruling the State Ethics Commission published the Friday before Valentine's Day. 
The opinion, penned at the request of the Secretary of State's Lobbying Compliance Division, added that such relationships would be unlikely to trigger the state's "goodwill lobbying" registration requirements. 

"Consensual sexual relationships do not have monetary value and therefore are not reportable as gifts or 'reportable expenditure made for lobbying,'" the opinion reads. "However, a lobbyist or lobbyist principal's provision of paid prostitution services by a third party to a designated individual could constitute a gift or thing of value, albeit an illegal one, depending on the particular facts."

The opinion's authors say the Secretary or State's Office did not provide a specific set of facts and that the original inquiry was "hypothetical in context" and therefore the response was limited.

Lobbyists are required to report anything worth more than $10 per day that they give to a person covered by the state ethics act or a family member. 

Opinions issued by the Ethics Commission are generally a good deal more banal, dealing with subjects such as under what circumstances it is legal for state officials to accept scholarships to conferences or whether attending a certain reception might pose a violation for lawmakers. North Carolina's current ethics regimen was put in place partly as a reaction to the scandal that led to the 2007 conviction of former Democratic state House Speaker Jim Black, who was snared illegally soliciting and channeling campaign contributions. 

While there have been minor sex scandals in recent years – two staffers in former Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis' office lost their jobs in 2012 due to relationships with lobbyists – episodes that have led to the convictions of elected officials have dealt with more traditional forms of bribery involving cash, trips and the like. 

Joal Broun, the Secretary of State's lobbying compliance director, declined to comment on why she requested the ethics opinion, deferring questions to the Secretary of State's spokeswoman Liz Proctor.

Proctor said that a private attorney posed the question to the Secretary of State's Office last in 2014.

"We agreed that the question needed to be decided," she said. Therefore, the office submitted the question to the Ethics Commission. 

Proctor declined to provide the Secretary of State's original request to the commission or offer any details as to why the request was made, citing an Attorney General's Office opinion that requests for such advice are confidential. 

"We are still reviewing the commission's opinion," she said. 

WRAL News obtained a copy of the four-page request for an opinion from another source. Parts of it are graphic, describing specific sexual acts that might be at issue, but it does not implicate a particular set of people or specify a particular set of facts. 

It does ask five questions, including, "Are sexual favors or sexual acts that a lobbyist or a lobbyist principal provides not for the purpose of lobbying a gift?" That question appears to explore whether ongoing dating relationships, and not just quid pro quo situations, could somehow violate the gift ban. 

A footnote to the opinion does note, "This interpretation does not address the legal, moral, or other ramifications of two adults not married to one another engaging in consensual sexual relations with one another. Such considerations are beyond both the scope of this request and the Commission's jurisdiction. This is solely an interpretation and application of the Ethics Act and Lobbying Law based on extremely limited information."

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