State News

Ethics Commission, state auditor trade jabs

Posted September 26, 2008 7:28 a.m. EDT
Updated September 26, 2008 8:26 p.m. EDT

— Using words like "sham" and "bogus," the chairman of the North Carolina State Ethics Commission fired back Friday at State Auditor Les Merritt over his investigation of the panel.

Merritt’s office blasted the Ethics Commission last month for trying to block the investigation, which involves allegations the commission gave preferential treatment to Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.

He released an unusual , which he said the commission has hampered by its unwillingness to provide records and to allow interviews with its staff. The report called those barriers an apparent violation of state law.

"We know of no situation in which a state agency refused to cooperate, refused access to persons and records and filed a lawsuit to block access and transparency," the interim report said. "There are important questions that must be fully reviewed and resolved with full disclosure."

Ethics Commission Chairman Robert Farmer said Friday that Merritt's "conduct exemplifies his total contempt for the rule of law."

"It's a document riddled with bogus and spurious allegations," Farmer said of the interim report.

According to reports, a staffer for Perdue was given unusual private access to an economic interest statement in the ethics office. Amanda Thaxton, an administrative assistant in the office, questioned the move and was later fired.

The commission sued Merritt in August, saying that by state law, the General Assembly must investigate the panel because the auditor's office has a conflict of interest. Merritt's top investigator, Frank Perry, worked for the ethics panel until last year.

The auditor's office has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. Merritt, in a prepared statement released with the report, said, "The ethics commission is attempting to conceal the facts of this case from the public" with the lawsuit.

Farmer said Merritt's investigation is a pretext for accessing confidential files, noting he has tried to obtain computer files and e-mail records from the commission and has interviewed commission employees.

"The Ethics Commission welcomes any legitimate and unbiased investigation," Farmer said in a statement. "By releasing this bogus report, we now understand that his goal was to never let anyone else investigate because it would not accomplish his goal of illegally confiscating our confidential files."

Merritt called Farmer's statement "harsh rhetoric" and said it only raises questions.

"The taxpayers have really got a right to know what's there that they're trying to hide, if there is something," he said.

"The facts are that the Ethics Commission staff has sued to block the state auditor’s investigation into the altering of public records, special treatment for high-level government aides and the potential retaliatory firing of a commission employee for exposing the possible cover-up," he said in a statement.

The commission and Merritt's office already had locked horns this year when the Democratic-led legislature passed a law in July narrowing the auditor's role in ethics investigations and stating the ethics commission's pre-eminence on those matters.

The commission cites the revised law in its lawsuit, asking that a judge order Merritt to back off.

"Everyone is subject to audit by the auditor," said Pressly Millen, an attorney in Merritt's office. "(The lawsuit is) a complete and total aberration – something that's never happened before, to my knowledge."

The auditor, a Republican who is seeking re-election in November, had in May defended his conflict-of-interest investigation of state Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.