Local Politics

Moore Rips Audit Critical of Computer Use

Posted January 31, 2008 11:37 a.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2008 6:54 p.m. EST

— State Treasurer Richard Moore blasted State Auditor Les Merritt following an audit that found several staff members in Moore's office used state computers for activities tied to his gubernatorial campaign.

Merritt's auditors combed through computer files in the offices of Moore and Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, Moore's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, last fall following accusations by each campaign that the other was illegally using state computers for campaign business.

The audit of computers in Moore's office found "significant evidence of political activity using state resources" by four part-time staff members who also work on Moore's campaign. The activity included accessing the Web sites of political action committees and polling consultants and holding files like campaign speeches, a thank-you letter to donors and Democratic Party contact lists.

The four staff members told auditors that they tried to use private e-mail accounts for campaign work. Still, the audit recommended that all four should be disciplined and that Moore should more closely monitor his employees' activities and should educate everyone in his office on the state's computer-use policy.

"There's zero tolerance for political use but a reasonable tolerance for personal use, and this rose to the level of political use," said Chris Mears, a spokesman for the State Auditor's Office.

Moore responded with a four-page letter that called the audit "overreaching" and questioned how it was conducted.

"There are clearly serious problems with your investigation," Moore wrote in the letter. "First, your staff has adopted a definition of 'political' that goes far beyond any reasonable person's definition. Further, what is 'political' is not defined by our statutes."

He maintained that most of the computer files questioned pertained to official business of the State Treasurer's Office, were personal in nature or amounted to "water cooler talk." He acknowledged that nine e-mails over a three-year period were political in nature, and he said that the employees involved have already been warned about using state computers for campaign work.

The audit staff was so taken aback by Moore's scathing response that they issued a two-page response outlining how the audit was conducted and supporting their contention that his staff was violating policies on the use of state computers.

"There were hundreds of additional documents, e-mails and Internet site hits that raised concern regarding their potential political purpose," the response stated. "To ensure fair and objective analysis, the management letter (to Moore) excluded any items that could be construed as having any reasonable association to the State Treasurer's official duties."

Moore's chief of staff, Stacey Phipps, released a statement Thursday afternoon reiterating its belief that the audit was flawed.

“The Department of State Treasurer has worked to draw a bright line between official duties and campaign activities," the statement said. "We acknowledge that over a three-year period there were a few incidents where staff acted improperly. These are exceptions, not the rule, and the employees responsible were disciplined. Unfortunately, the auditor overreached, putting his entire report into question."

The audit of computers in Perdue's office found a few e-mails and drafts of speeches and letters in files, but Perdue's attorney said the material was either unsolicited or dated to before she was elected. Most of the campaign activity carried out by her staff was done on private computers, Perdue said, noting that she would remind workers to conduct campaign work only on their off hours.

Perdue's campaign had paid for a private Internet connection and wireless router in her official office, and auditors recommended that it be removed. Perdue responded that, although she chairs the Business Education Technology Alliance and needs to stay abreast of new technologies, she had already disconnected the line to avoid any impression of a conflict of interest.

"It's our goal to ferret out any sort of electioneering using state resources because that money is meant for the public and the public good," Mears said.