Local Politics

Auditor's Role on Bank Board Questioned

Posted September 5, 2007 6:18 p.m. EDT
Updated September 5, 2007 6:52 p.m. EDT

— For the second time in five months, State Auditor Les Merritt has drawn criticism for his role outside of his elected office.

Merritt has joined the advisory board for the Zebulon branch of Four Oaks Bank. Chris Mears, a spokesman for the Auditor's Office, said the move doesn't present a conflict of interest.

"Les is from Zebulon. He's into community service. They asked him to serve, and he's agreed to serve," Mears said.

But Joe Sinsheimer, a former political consultant who exposed corruption by former House Speaker Jim Black and state Rep. Michael Decker, said Merritt's choices are questionable, if not illegal.

"It's clear what the bank was trying to do was to use Les Merritt to drum up business. That may be a smart business decision for the bank to do, but it's not the right ethical choice for a state auditor," Sinsheimer said. "There's a real slippery slope here. Are we going to have statewide elected officials serving on the boards of private corporations?"

Bank executives said Merritt's public title wouldn't be used for promotion, and he won't have access to private financial information and decisions.

Merritt disclosed the new position to the State Ethics Commission. He noted in his economic disclosure that it is a paid position – bank advisory board members received $150 per meeting and meet about six times a year – but he said Wednesday that he would serve on the board without pay.

In March, Merritt issued a news release announcing the formation of a financial planning service with his son. Although he said he didn't view the business as a conflict, he backed out of the business because of a perception problem.

"It took the spotlight off our audit teams," Mears said of Merritt's involvement in the planning business.