Elections/Ethics board still silent on Hise investigation; Senator reports spending campaign funds on lawyers, accountants

Elections/Ethics board still silent on Hise investigation; Senator reports spending campaign funds on lawyers, accountants

Nearly a year after the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement began a probe into alleged campaign finance violations by State Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), the investigation continues.

The board still refuses to make any material related to the investigation public under the Freedom of Information Act and Hise remains silent on the subject. But the powerful state senator’s most recent campaign finance filings give some insight into the investigation’s lingering effects.

Hise raised $18,341.01 in the period between July of 2017 and the end of December. He spent the vast majority of that on his campaign audits, paying $7,700 to the Parker Poe law firm and $9,000 to certified public accountant Amy Ellis, his treasurer.

Ellis has also served as treasurer for the NC Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign committee of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and the conservative NC Values Coalition.

Hise’s campaign received only four contributions from individuals in the filing period, adding up to less than $2,000. Almost all of the money raised came from political action committees, most related to the healthcare and insurance industries Hise helps regulate as a member or chairman of legislative committees related to their work.

Hise, one of the state Senate’s most influential members, co-chairs the standing committees on Health Care and Appropriations on Health and Human Services. He is a member of the standing committees on Pensions and Retirement and Aging and Commerce and Insurance.

He also chairs the non-standing Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice and is a member of the non-standing Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services.

During the latest filing period Hise received $2,300 from the Tampa, Florida-based Wellcare PAC and $2,000 each from the EmergeOrtho PAC of Durham, the United Health Group Incorporated PAC of Greensboro. The campaign also received $1,000 contributions from the NC Nurses PAC, Johnson & Johnson PAC and the Pfizer PAC.

His campaign also received $750 from the Baxter Healthcare PAC and $500 from the AETNA INC PAC, both based in Washington, DC.

The original complaint against Hise, filed in March of 2017 by activist Greg Flynn, detailed a variety of errors and omissions in Hise’s campaign disclosures. They include:

  • Hise loaned about $50,000 to the campaign, but was repaid about $60,000 according to the reports.
  • Required information about campaign contributors – including employers and addresses – were missing from the reports.
  • A failure to report more than $9,000 that nine political action committees reported making to his campaign over a four year period.
  • A failure to provide itemized information on thousands of dollars in campaign disbursements.

Hise, a four-term Senator and chair of the powerful Senate Select Committee on Elections and the Senate Redistricting Committee, has declined to comment on the investigation beyond a statement that his campaign is cooperating with the board. He has ignored repeated calls for him to recuse himself from the legislature’s ongoing efforts to draw new district voting lines and restructure state and local elections boards, both of which have drawn lawsuits. Government watchdog organizations have criticized Hise for continuing to make policy that will affect the very bodies that are investigating him.

Jonathan Jones is director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an instructor of media law, ethics and media writing at Elon University. He said this week that Hise’s case does not seem to meet the standard set by statute to withhold all related documents.

“I don’t think the elections board is covered by the ‘law enforcement agency,’ exception to investigative records in the public records law, despite the letter from the attorney general,” Jones said. “Whether or not the exception applies, though, it is a discretionary exemption. The State Board of Elections could choose to release the information it has gathered in the Hise investigation.”

The public has the right to the information, Jones said – which is particularly important with an election approaching.

“Whether it implicates or exonerates him, this information is vital to the electorate as we are in an election year,” Jones said. “Voters should have the opportunity to evaluate whether or not everything was handled above board, and so I think it should be released.”