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Special Ethics Panel Readies For Challenge

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RALEIGH, N.C. — For the first time in decades, North Carolina is taking a hard look at ethics in government. And the timing couldn't be better.

Next week, a special ethics committee will hold its second meeting. It will come just a day after Meredith Norris is expected to testify before the State Board of Elections. House Speaker Jim Black's former political director is under investigation for suspected lobbying violations.

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    And then there's the controversy surrounding one of his former appointees for the North Carolina Lottery Commission. Kevin Geddings failed to disclose that a lottery company paid him thousands of dollars last year.

    In the midst of several scandals, Black maintains he's done nothing illegal, and even launched the special committee.

    "Speaker Black is getting a lot of attention," said Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake County). "One positive thing that can come out of all these issues is that we have a House Select Committee on Ethics."

    Ross is a member of that committee. She said there's momentum to create tougher ethics laws.

    At next week's meeting, Ross said the special group of lawmakers will tackle tougher lobbying reform. She also expects the group to discuss stronger limits on the use of campaign funds, and ethics training for lawmakers.

    Right now, North Carolina is one of only a handful of states without ethics laws for the executives of government, like the Lottery Commission. Rep. Ross said a change there will be top priority.

    "If we have more robust ethics laws, it will create more trust among the public," said Ross. "It will also show that we can clean our own house."

    But Peace College political professor David McLennan said in an election year, with Black controlling $1 million dollars in campaign money, that's going to be tough.

    "It's hard to have this committee operate at the same time," said McLennan. "You have their leadership being investigated."

    But ultimately, it's the voters that lawmakers will answer to, and that's the force driving reform. Professor McLennan said that from a historical perspective, public opinion of political leaders is the lowest it's been since Watergate, which was the last time North Carolina reformed ethics in government.


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