North Carolina gets mixed marks on integrity report

Posted November 9, 2015 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated November 9, 2015 6:30 a.m. EST

NC Flag, Legislative Building, Raleigh

— There are two ways North Carolina voters can look at rankings released Monday of how open and honest their state government is. With an overall rank of 18 out of 50, Tar Heel State government compares well to many of its counterparts around the country.

On the other hand, the state is at the top of a not-terribly-bright class, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

Only three states – Alaska, California and Connecticut – pulled down a grade of C or C-minus, with the remainder of states somewhere between a D-plus or failing marks. North Carolina took home a D, cited as a state that swings between best-practice transparency and in-practice obfuscation of important government business.

In his summary of the report findings for CPI, former Bloomberg News and Charlotte Observer reporter Bill Arthur writes of the dichotomy between being able to find ethics disclosures online at the click of a mouse and a state government that is facing lawsuits from multiple media outlets, including WRAL News, for failing to turn over records in a timely manner.

"This hard-to-get, easy-to-get dichotomy reflects North Carolina’s split political personality. With almost 10 million people, North Carolina is now the ninth-largest state, and it’s not all red, not all blue," the North Carolina report reads.

The CPI report follows up on a 2012 investigation, but it employs a different set of criteria to rate the states. So, while North Carolina's overall grade dropped at the same time it climbed from No. 21 to No. 18 on the list, the two sets of data really don't compare.

For anyone familiar with North Carolina government and politics, many of the places that North Carolina lost points this year will be familiar. For example, the state fares well in the areas of political finance disclosure and election oversight, pulling down the equivalent of C-range grades on both. But the report points out that the State Board of Elections "is years behind in auditing campaign finance reports. That means it could be months or years before a violation, such as a candidate spending campaign funds for personal use, is discovered."

This lag came into play this summer when the elections board called Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, on the carpet for inappropriate expenditures of campaign funds on personal expenses. The inquiry marked the first time a full audit had ever been done of his campaign committee, despite his serving more two decades in office. A pair of state laws require the State Board of Elections to give each report filed a once-over within 30 days and a complete audit within four months.

North Carolina scores on 2015 State Integrity Investigation

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Source: 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity

"Those (deadlines) are not currently being met," acknowledged Josh Lawson, the State Board of Elections general counsel, although he added improvements are on the way.

For example, a requirement that starts in 2017 for any committee raising and spending more than $10,000 to file electronically will help speed reviews.

"E-filing audits are far more easily completed because they don't require hand-keying the data" from hand-scrawled reports, Lawson said.

The Center for Public Integrity report was based on what the group and its partner on the project, good-government campaigner Global Integrity, determined were "best practices" that could help keep corruption at bay or root it out if it begins to set in.

"North Carolina is certainly not a stand-out bad actor," said Nicholas Kusnetz, the report's project manager. "That said, a D is not a good grade."

In some cases, North Carolina lost points for differences between what transparency laws require and how state agencies ultimately behave. For example, slow turnaround on records requests and state boards that fail to follow the letter of open meetings laws flout reasonably good transparency laws.

Kusnetz points out that North Carolina is like many states in that there is no state-sponsored oversight board that helps settle public records disputes, as is the case with Iowa.

"There's no entity that is tasked with overseeing the law," he said, something that leaves news organizations faced with the costly option of going to court or merely putting a spotlight on problem government actors.

The questions the report asks, he said, are whether the public has adequate ability to oversee the government and whether there are systems in place for the government to check its own operation.

For example, North Carolina scores low on judicial oversight, in part because there is no "revolving door" law that stops judges from going to work for companies that had cases before their bench once they retire. Also, in 2013, "the Republican-controlled legislature limited the power of the State Judicial Standards Commission to discipline judges."

That 2013 bill stripped the Judicial Standards Commission of its authority to issue public reprimands and placed all forms of public discipline in the hands of the North Carolina Supreme Court. All disciplinary hearings are now private, and case records are confidential unless the Supreme Court decides to take disciplinary action.

Some weaknesses identified are budget driven. For example, the North Carolina-specific report points out that, of the nine positions tasked with reviewing lobbying disclosure reports five years ago, only five still exist following budget cuts in 2011.

"The result is that it takes about two weeks before the reports are available on the agency’s website," the report said.

Those reports are used by members of the press and public to track who is spending money to influence lawmakers and the executive branch.

Liz Proctor, a spokeswoman with the North Carolina Secretary of State's Office, points out that it's not just the lack of staff slowing the reports down. While lobbyists are required to file their quarterly reports electronically, they're not considered officially filed until a signed and notarized copy gets to the Secretary of State's Office.

​"That went into effect in 2013. It was sometime that came from the General Assembly," Proctor said.

North Carolina also gets mixed marks on its Ethics Commission. Despite publishing statements of economic interest, those forms don’t require disclosure of the net worth of an individual, and mutual funds and pension plans may be omitted. Those reports are kept under wraps unless revealed by the parties involved.

CPI's report also points out that intimate relationships between lobbyists and public officials don't run afoul of state ethics laws and gift bans, according to a 2015 ruling.

"I think I understand why the Ethics Commission made the decision they did, but it’s very troubling," Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, told the report's authors.

Rankings from 2015 State Integrity Investigation

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Source: 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity