Workplace safety fines cut more than usual for Labor chief's contributors
In her quest for re-election, N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has collected at least half of her campaign contributions from executives and managers of companies that have been inspected by her department, a Charlotte Observer analysis found.
Although the Labor Department routinely reduces fines for workplace safety violations, Berry's contributors have usually gotten bigger-than-average breaks.
More than 20 employees of McGee Bros., a large masonry business based in Monroe, contributed to Berry last year as part of a company-sponsored fundraiser. The company's employees and spouses have contributed more than $9,300 to Berry's re-election campaigns.
The Labor Department, which is charged with overseeing the safety of workers, has cited McGee Bros. for more than 40 OSHA violations since Berry took office in 2001. Inspectors proposed fines of $32,000, but the penalties were cut to $4,150.
Those elected to run state agencies have long relied on contributions from companies they regulate, but the General Assembly has begun to reduce the influence of such money. Lawmakers last year made public funding available to candidates in races for auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction.
No connection, Berry says
Berry and company officials say there's no connection between campaign donations and fines. "Contributions have nothing to do with decisions at the Department of Labor," she said.
Berry, a Republican running for her third term, said she has participated in settlement negotiations regarding fines just once during her eight-year tenure. State OSHA officials don't consult with her about reducing fines, she said.
"I never wanted anybody to ever be able to say I was showing favoritism," she said. "That is not what should be done in government."
But Bob Hall, director of the campaign finance reform group Democracy North Carolina, said he was disturbed by the findings. (more…)