Legislative staffers used as extras in lawmaker's re-election ad

Posted March 15, 2012 7:17 p.m. EDT
Updated March 15, 2012 7:59 p.m. EDT

— Election watchdogs are questioning a campaign ad for longtime Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, which uses the House chamber and legislative aides as a backdrop.

Crawford faces a primary challenge in May after he and Rep. Winkie Wilkins, D-Person, were drawn into the same district in new voting maps. So, Crawford produced his first television ad in 20 years.

The spot shows him speaking on the House floor, with several people seated at lawmakers' desks behind him, as if he were engaged in a floor debate. The "lawmakers" behind him are legislative aides, reportedly rounded up by Crawford's legislative assistant Linda WInstead to help with the video shoot.  

Legislative staffers Gennie Thurlow and Cindy Hobbs said Thursday that they were on the clock during the video shoot, but added that there was no intention to break any rules. They said they were just trying to help out. 

"You cannot use state employees in a political commercial. Those people need to file time sheets that show them off the clock, and if they lost income, Rep. Crawford or his campaign should be compensating them," said Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

Crawford said it was simply an oversight, saying he didn't think the legislative aides were on the clock at the time.

"We just needed some people to sit in," he said.

"It's one more case where elected officials need to be careful because it makes people suspicious when they realize somebody's taking advantage of their office," Pinsky said. "The last thing we want is to do anything that undermines people's confidence in this institution."

Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, said no ethics investigation is planned at this time. But, he said, it's a complaint-driven process. "If an official complaint is filed on this matter, then it will be given the same treatment as every other complaint," Shaw explained.

Pinsky also said she couldn't remember the House or Senate chamber ever being used as a set for a campaign ad. Although it's not illegal, she said, taxpayers wouldn't have the same access.

"I don't think it's appropriate simply because it's using the power of the office one step beyond the seal," she said.

Crawford said it's no different than using news footage of an actual House session for a campaign ad.

"I didn't know there was anything wrong with it, if there was," he said.

Tillis didn't know Crawford had used the chamber for an ad, Shaw said, but no permission was needed because House members have access to the chamber floor at all times.