For the better part of two years, allegations of myriad campaign finance violations have hung over state Sen. Ralph Hise, an influential western North Carolina Republican.
But Tuesday morning, members of a key state elections and ethics panel unanimously agreed to a settlement that, as far as this board goes, closes the book with a relatively modest punishment.
According to the two-page settlement document released Tuesday, Hise will be forced to pay a $500 fine and reimburse the state for $4,000 in expenses charged during the lengthy investigation.
It was unclear at press time what the total tab for the investigation is, or what, if anything, that probe turned up. Members of the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement were tight-lipped about the surprise deal, which emerged shortly before members were expected to finally take up the case against Hise.
Board Chairman Andy Penry said members of the panel found the settlement agreement “fair and reasonable.” In exchange for the Hise payments, the state elections board will “close the matter without further action,” the settlement states.
Hise’s hearing has been on the docket since early 2017, when Greg Flynn, a Wake County elections board member and campaign finance maven, filed a complaint accusing Hise of various misdeeds, including the receipt of roughly $10,000 more in loan repayments than he made to his campaign.
Flynn also charged the legislator with failing to report about $9,000 in contributions from political action committees. Campaign watchdogs like Democracy N.C. shredded Hise for the alleged holes in his finance reports.
After Tuesday’s board meeting, Flynn told Policy Watch that he was “kind of disgusted.”
“We don’t get to know what happened, we don’t get to know what the board staff found out, what the explanations are for the different anomalies,” said Flynn. “It’s like the whole thing is shut down.”
Hise, meanwhile, thanked the board’s staff in a statement Tuesday. “After cooperating fully to resolve bookkeeping mistakes and make clear our campaign’s expenditures were completely legitimate, I’m pleased the facts won the day and that my family can move on,” Hise said in the statement.
The GOP senator did not agree to an interview with Policy Watch to discuss the probe, but in a summary of the investigation provided by Hise, he said that they agreed to the settlement after an accountant conducted an “exhaustive analysis” of his campaign’s reports and expenses.
Hise said he also met this month with Kim Strach, the board’s executive director, and board attorney John Bruce to discuss the investigation.
“While the committee’s 2013-2016 reports were found to contain some accounting and reporting errors, the evidence shows that none of the errors were willful,” the Hise statement said.
The Republican lawmaker’s case was delayed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly’s pitched battle with Gov. Roy Cooper over the makeup of the elections board, as well as the Hise campaign’s claims that his mother’s cancer diagnosis should delay a hearing before this year’s election. Hise’s mother was his campaign treasurer for years.
Critics of the GOP senator, including Hise’s defeated Democratic challenger in this year’s election, David Wheeler, seemed livid at the board, which is split between four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member.
“I just think you’re setting a really, really bad precedent,” Wheeler said, before Penry ended public discussion of the matter.
Penry said state election officials negotiated the settlement following a full investigation of Flynn’s complaints and would not accept public comments about the matter.
In a separate claim, Wheeler has also accused Hise of filing false claims for pay from his employer or the state Senate, allegations denied by Hise.
The board’s vice chairman, Joshua Malcolm, thanked Flynn for pursuing the complaint against Hise. “It’s people like you that we need to keep their eyes on the big building down the street,” said Malcolm, presumably referring to the state legislative building.
Still, Flynn said the settlement leaves more questions than answers about Hise’s campaign reports, pointing to major changes in Hise’s initial and amended reports.
The changes in Hise’s reports are so extensive as to “render the previous reports false,” said Flynn.
“The whole thing just makes a mockery of these laws,” added Flynn. “We’re just in the dark and it seems to be wide open for anybody else to misreport things and hope nobody else notices.”