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Final Version Of Ethics Bill Ready For Vote

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Months of debate, research and tense discussion are over, as state legislators finalize changes to ethics and lobbying rules.

After months of tense negotiations, leaders of the state Legislature told WRAL late Wednesday afternoon that work on the legislation was all but over, after compromises were reached on several controversial portions of the bill.

"For the first time in North Carolina, there is a gift ban," said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, the House's chief negotiator on the bill. "For the first time in North Carolina, there is full lobbyist reporting of expenses for lobbying. All of those things are in this bill."

Supporters consider the campaign donation ban as a way to reduce the influence of money on the political process at the Legislative Building and within state government.

Lobbyists also would be prevented from "bundling" campaign donations, a practice in which they collect campaign checks and hand them to a candidate in a bunch, sometimes after a fundraising event on the candidate's behalf. But the measure wouldn't prohibit lobbyists from urging a person to give to a candidate, Hackney said.

A new eight-member State Ethics Commission would conduct inquiries on complaints filed against all three branches of government that would remain confidential unless the subject of the complaint requests otherwise.

Inquiries that aren't dismissed against lawmakers and judges would be forwarded to existing ethics committees that would oversee hearings and issue sanctions. Otherwise, the state commission still would conduct hearings involving the governor, Council of State members, other top executive agency leaders and appointees to boards and commissions.

Commission staff also would collect and review expanded economic disclosure statements of government officials for potential conflicts of interest and issue advisory opinions.

Lobbyists would have to report their expenditures monthly when the General Assembly is in session.

Individual legislators largely would be banned from accepting dinners and tickets to sporting events from lobbyists -- perks that many have enjoyed for years.

There would be some exceptions for legislators to receive gifts from lobbyists -- mostly for food and drinks at public events in which a large number of legislators are invited or attend. Lobbyists' clients also could pay for travel for educational or legislative organizations.

State employees who lobby the General Assembly on behalf of their agencies also could not give gifts.

Critics of the new legislation told WRAL that the finalized changes are a mixed bag, and may still allow too many exceptions for special-interest groups and lobbyists. However, lawmakers told WRAL that they believe the changes will lead to a stronger Legislature.

"The overall message is that we're attempting to give the public confidence in the processes of all government, but putting the sunshine on all lobbying expenses, banning campaign contributions by lobbyists, and by putting in place a good, solid ethics procedure," said Hackney.

Neither chamber heard the bill Wednesday after negotiators worked out some minor differences. The Senate and House were expected to consider the bill Thursday, when lawmakers hoped to adjourn their session for the year.

The proposed changes come nearly seven months after a special House committee appointed by House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, was charged with examining ethics, lobbying and campaign finance changes. The panel originated after at least two people associated with Black were investigated for violating state lobbying laws related to their work with Scientific Games Corp. leading up to last year's lottery vote.

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