@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Secrecy provision in elections board bill prompting Cooper veto

Posted December 18, 2018 10:48 a.m. EST
Updated December 18, 2018 6:15 p.m. EST

— Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday that he will veto legislation that again overhauls the state elections board because it also would make investigations of potential campaign finance violations confidential.

The bill comes amid an investigation by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement into suspicious absentee voting in the 9th Congressional District, and Cooper said lawmakers should be more concerned about building public confidence in elections than in protecting politicians who bend the rules.

"This bill makes it harder to root out corruption in elections and campaign finance," he said during a news conference. "This bill was a rush job that, at first glance, is an improvement."

Cooper noted that House Bill 1029 would finally comply with court rulings by limiting legislative control over the state elections board, an issue that has led to a two-year court fight between the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders, as well as repeated changes to the board's composition because of those lawsuits.

"Basically, that bill gives the governor pretty much everything he asked for," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said.

But one provision in the measure would, for the first time, make investigations into alleged campaign finance violations secret. It also would place a four-year statute of limitations on investigations, with the clock starting once the board knows, or should have known, about a violation of the state's campaign finance rules; require that complaints through the ethics commission before they go to court; and put local prosecutors in charge of the probes, rather than the Wake County district attorney, who often has more resources and experience in campaign finance investigations.

"All of these new provisions work to obscure the truth rather than shine a light on it," Cooper said.

Lawmakers argue the changes were made to protect state legislators and other politicians from frivolous claims or from malicious prosecution by a partisan elections board. They wouldn't prevent a public hearing on allegations or from any final penalties from being public, they said.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, was investigated this year on a campaign finance complaint, but the board ultimately did not find wrongdoing. Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, also was investigated and fined by the board. Both cases were on the public record.

"Gov. Cooper laid bare what he's sought for two years: partisan weaponization of the Board of Elections' investigatory power," Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said in a statement. "The legislature will not allow the governor to use the partisan Board of Elections as a blunt instrument to hammer his political adversaries. Gov. Cooper's failure to act is holding the entire Board of Elections hostage, including the [9th Congressional District] investigation, in his effort to achieve unchecked power to launch corrupt and unfounded partisan attacks on legislators."

The bill includes a section calling for new primaries to be held if the state board finds fraud and orders a new general election.

The measure passed the General Assembly last week by wide margins, but the governor said that was only because many lawmakers supported the portions that would split the elections board in two and revert responsibilities for elections and ethics enforcement back to the way things operated before December 2016.

Lawmakers used a maneuver that called for only one up-or-down vote in each chamber on the bill and blocked any amendments.

Cooper called on lawmakers to remove the secrecy provision so he could sign the rest of the bill into law.

"Let's get this right, and let's get this done," he said.

But Mark Coggins, spokesman for Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, chairman of the House Elections Committee, said there would be no compromise on the bill.

"The governor has already been told that, because he demanded unprecedented total partisan control of the elections board and because he insists on appointing partisan hacks to the board, such as former Chairman Andy Penry, the due process protections in Section 4 are essential to the public and will not be removed," Coggins said in a statement.

Penry recently resigned as chairman of the elections board after a series of partisan tweets he made came to light.

"[Cooper's] refusal to promptly return a veto to the House is thus intentionally ruining the holiday season for cafeteria workers, clerks, and nonpartisan researchers out of nothing but spite. But make no mistake, this eventual veto will be overridden," Coggins said.

Cooper is holding the holidays over lawmakers' heads. He has until midnight Friday to issue the veto, meaning the General Assembly would have to reconvene after Christmas for any override.

"On a broader note," Coggins added, "it is frustrating that the governor refuses to negotiate anything of consequence with this legislature. Unless he quickly learns how to work in good faith and give as well as take in a discussion, North Carolina is in for a long two years."

Republicans lose their veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate in January, which likely would force more negotiation to get legislation through.