Fitzsimon File

The Follies

Conflict of interest update

Conflicts of interest are nothing new in Raleigh but the McCrory Administration is already facing several and the new governor hasn’t even watched his inaugural parade yet.

Friday NC-WARN and AARP-NC formally asked Gov-elect McCrory to recuse himself from making the upcoming appointments to the N.C. Utilities Commission since he worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

The groups encouraged McCrory to set up an independent committee to come up with the appointments, which seems like the least he can do, given his close association with the company that provides about 97 percent of the electricity in the state.

McCrory has already named two former Duke Energy executives to his inner circle. And in the wake of the controversial merger between Duke and Progress Energy in Raleigh and the many important issues coming before the commission in the next year, McCrory could send a clear message about ethics and transparency by turning over the appointments to an independent body.

McCrory’s news conference this week to announce his latest appointments highlighted another potential conflict in the new administration, this one on the issue of video sweepstakes in the state.

Recent court rulings upheld a ban on sweepstakes machines passed by the General Assembly several years ago. McCrory was asked about the issue at the news conference and gave an unclear answer, first saying that the law should be followed but then pointing out that “there are ways to have legal maneuvering to go around those laws that has been going on for a very, very, long time.”

McCrory ought to know a lot about that. The Charlotte law firm where McCrory worked during his campaign represents one of the sweepstakes companies that sued to overturn the ban.  McCrory’s campaign strategist Brian Nick recently went to work for the same firm and was quoted defending the industry in news stories about the courts’ decisions.

McCrory stayed on the law and lobbying firm’s payroll during his transition period, a troubling choice that meant he was being paid by a lobbying firm while he was making decisions about who would be appointed to influential positions in state government that will directly affect the firm’s lobbying clients.

A story by a Charlotte television station about the video sweepstakes issue reported that McCrory recently severed formal ties with the law and lobbying firm, but noted that McCrory’s staff could not come up with a specific date when McCrory stopped being on the payroll.  That seems like something the public deserves to know.

And then there’s The Foundation for North Carolina, the shadowy advocacy group set up by McCrory supporters that is soliciting $50,000 contributions in exchange for special access to McCrory at weekend retreats next year.

The creation of the group prompted a few news stories in early December but not much has been reported about it lately.  At the very least, the people of North Carolina deserve to know which special interests are buying time with the governor who is supposed to represent us all.

The State Budget Director as redistricting architect

Speaking of special interests, in case you missed it, ProPublica published an interesting report just before Christmas about the role that big, often anonymous, Republican special interest money played in the redistricting process across the country and in North Carolina.

The entire story is a fascinating look behind the big money curtain but one detail stands out given Gov-elect Pat McCrory’s recent appointments.

The story mentions that Art Pope was appointed co-counsel to the legislative leadership during redistricting and actually gave detailed instructions to the technical expert hired by a Republican interest group to draw the maps.

That would be the Art Pope who has given more than $40 million in the last 10 years to Republican politicians and right-wing advocacy groups and helped engineer the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2010, just in time to control the redistricting process.

The Republican legislative leadership promptly gerrymandered the maps to help increase their margins in the General Assembly in the 2012 election and win 9 of the state’s 13 congressional seats even though more people in North Carolina voted for a Democrat for Congress in November than voted for a Republican.

There’s another reason Pope was named co-counsel, so he could claim that any information about his role should not be released because of attorney-client privilege.  The state Supreme Court is currently considering what information should be released as part of a larger lawsuit challenging the gerrymandered districts.

Meanwhile Pope moves on to his role putting the state budget together where he will work closely with the Republican majorities he helped finance and keep in power with the maps he helped draw.

More Access for sale

And finally, you and 11 of your closest friends can have your picture taken with House Speaker Thom Tillis and other House leaders at the end of the month.

All you need to do is come to the House Republican Caucus “Photo-Op Reception” in Raleigh on January 29 and bring $10,000.

That will also get you into the “General Reception” that follows the Photo-Op Reception.  And according to the invitation to the soiree, you will also get special recognition at the event too.

There’s nothing mentioned about the other benefit that surely comes with the deal. The “insider-access reception” you can get all year long.