Governor Pat McCrory’s new private nonprofit shadow Commerce Department announced its full roster of board members this week and the news was dutifully reported by the media across the state—but most stories left something important out.
The nonprofit, called the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, was created as a way to make the state’s efforts to recruit industry more nimble and responsive, though it’s never been entirely clear how it will work in practice or why it is needed.
The explanations in the press releases are generally an amalgam of buzzwords — “customer service,” “innovation,” “robust analysis,” etc. — things that the Commerce Department itself has always claimed to provide.
Then there is the group’s leadership and CEO Richard Lindenmuth, who as Sarah Ovaska with NC Policy Watch has reported, has a checkered past and was accused of overcharging for his work managing corporate bankruptcies.
One board member said the new board would be the single point of contact for corporations looking to come to North Carolina. But isn’t that what the Commerce Secretary and her top staff do?
Now we have a private and less accountable entity playing a role interacting with corporations, many of whom will receive financial incentives to move to North Carolina or expand if they are already here.
That makes being on the board an influential job, working with corporate leaders behind the scenes. One of the board members is Bob Singer, an attorney with the Brooks Pierce law firm in Greensboro.
The firm had lobbyists patrolling the legislative halls last session on behalf of more than a dozen corporate clients, including United Health Care, Cisco, and the N.C. Petroleum and Convenience Marketers.
And more importantly Singer is apparently still the president of the Renew North Carolina Foundation, a political organization with close ties to Gov. McCrory that raises large anonymous contributions from corporations. The Foundation ran television ads at the end of the 2013 defending McCrory’s performance in his first year in office.
The Foundation also held a private two-day retreat with McCrory and his staff during the crucial last days of the 2013 budget debate, where donors could spend time with the governor for $5,000. If they came up with $25,000 or $50,000 they could sign-up as year-long members of the Foundation and get invited to other events with private access to McCrory and his top lieutenants.
Singer’s involvement with the political group wasn’t mentioned in many of the media reports about the new board members for the private economic development nonprofit.
But it’s awfully convenient. Singer can use his quasi-official role with the economic development board to help corporate executives get what they need to come to North Carolina and while he’s at it, maybe collect a large contribution for the Governor’s shadowy political group. Nothing like secretly buying some goodwill with the governor’s team.
It’s not the first time that the Renew North Carolina Foundation and this new private economic development nonprofit have intersected.
The driving force behind the nonprofit is John Lassiter, a Charlotte businessman and close confidant of McCrory.
Lassiter has been involved with the privatization effort from the beginning and also was appointed by McCrory to chair the N.C. Economic Development Board. He is now the chair of the new Economic Development Partnership.
Lassiter was also one of the founding members of the Renew North Carolina Foundation and served as its chair, presumably raising anonymous money from corporations for the political group too, until his dual role and obvious conflict of interest came to light and he resigned from the Foundation—not that anyone believes he’s completely out of the business of raising money for McCrory in some capacity.
Now it’s Singer’s turn. The Secretary of State’s office still lists him as the head of the foundation and he simply should not be allowed to serve on the economic development board while raising anonymous money from corporations for a political group at the same time.
McCrory could handle this another way of course, by making the contributions to the Renew North Carolina Foundation public, so everything is above board and we’ll know who is buying access and influence and who is receiving business incentives.
McCrory has promised the most transparent administration in North Carolina history after all. Let’s see if he means it.