Gov. Pat McCrory’s rise to the top coincides with another ascension in Raleigh: his former employer’s lobbying practice.
The Charlotte law firm Moore & Van Allen’s lobbyists represented three times as many special interests in the 2011-12 legislative session as compared to the previous one, moving them into the top dozen influence peddlers at the statehouse.
The burgeoning clout came as McCrory, the firm’s senior director of strategic initiatives, cruised to victory in the gubernatorial race with the help of campaign cash from the firm and its employees, totaling at least $80,000.
And with the Republican’s victory, Moore & Van Allen is only looking to expand its reach at the General Assembly and its ties to the new governor. The firm recently hired Brian Nick, one of McCrory’s senior campaign advisers, as a senior director for strategic communications, and earlier this month lured a former senior attorney at the state revenue department to join its lobbying team based in the Triangle.
“We are proud of our success in being able to build out our client list in Raleigh,” said Walter Price, the firm’s managing partner for public affairs, who joined the team 18 months ago to boost its presence in the state capital. “I think there is a lot of room in that space for firms that can meet their clients’ needs.”
Access to McCrory
At the same time, Moore & Van Allen’s growing prominence and ties to the governor are raising questions about whether the corporations and special interests the firm represents will get special access or favors from the state’s leaders. In 2012, the firm represented video sweepstakes companies, pro-fracking entities and Panthers Stadium, which may seek taxpayer incentives for renovations.
“Obviously the calling card is, ‘We can get access to the governor,’ ” said Bob Phillips with Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “It’s illegal to do so, but I would have an expectation they are doing that.”
Chris Walker, McCrory’s communications director, said such comments are political in nature and not based in fact. “There is no special access, and any assertions to the contrary are just inaccurate,” Walker said.
The firm hired McCrory in January 2010, soon after he retired as the longest-serving Charlotte mayor and roughly a year after he lost his first bid for governor, citing his 29 years of experience at Duke Energy.
His employment at a law firm that did lobbying work became a major campaign issue as McCrory refused to release a client list and remained guarded about what he did at the firm, saying only that he provided business advice to lawyers. He vowed he did no lobbying work.
Gerrick Brenner, executive director at Progress North Carolina, a liberal political group that challenged McCrory on his employment during the campaign, said the questions are only amplified now that McCrory is governor.
“I don’t understand how they wouldn’t have an advantage,” Brenner said of Moore & Van Allen. “I think for people to think they don’t have special access is naive.”
McCrory remained at the firm through the two-month transition, which also concerned government watchdogs, and resigned in December, days before being sworn in as governor.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt faced the same questions in his third and fourth terms after being a lawyer at Poyner & Spruill, another prominent law firm that lobbies state government. Hunt spoke out strongly, vowing that the firm would not receive special access.
Phillips said state law doesn’t outline any rules to limit a lobbying firm’s potential advantage in situations like these. But he hopes McCrory would put in place restrictions to keep the playing field level. “I guess time will tell, depending on what they can do for their clients,” he said. “It’s something all of us will be watching with a keener eye.”
At least three of Moore & Van Allen’s clients are at the forefront of major policy debates in Raleigh right now.
• Sweepstakes firm International Internet Technologies is appealing a decision – with Moore & Van Allen’s help – from the N.C. Supreme Court that put in place a law outlawing their machines. McCrory recently said the law enforcement officials needed to enforce the law, but he also opened the door to alternate solutions, pointing to the ongoing legal battle and saying he needed to consult with legislative leaders on a new strategy. The sweepstakes industry is pushing lawmakers to make their machines legal and subject to state taxes, arguing that the state has a monopoly on gaming with the N.C. Lottery.
• The American Petroleum Institute is a leading advocate for oil and natural gas drilling off the state’s coasts and inland through a process known as fracking. McCrory is advocating the same position as governor, one he said he’s held for a long time, as a way to generate more tax revenue and lure jobs to the state.
• And the Panthers Stadium group, another client, wants major renovations to the NFL franchise’s home in Charlotte. Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis recently expressed an openness to discussing state incentives for the Carolina Panthers, which apparently were being lobbied to relocate to Los Angeles. McCrory has yet to take a position on the issue.
A new lobbying team
Price, the chief lobbyist at Moore & Van Allen, declined to discuss his clients’ interests in a recent interview.
He credits his firm’s success to its new lobbying team: Cameron Henley, a veteran lobbyist for ElectriCities of North Carolina, and Tommy Sevier, a former deputy chief of staff to Senate President Pro Team Phil Berger. Price spent 10 years as a lobbyist in the financial services industry for Wachovia and U.S. Bank Corp.
The three joined the firm during the last legislative session, when Republicans gained control. In the 2009-10 session, the firm had only one lobbyist and four clients. Last session, its client list had grown to 14 and included Nucor, Microsoft and the N.C. Real Estate Investors Coalition. For this year’s session, the firm has already added Bank of America as a lobbying client.
Price said all the new faces in the Republican-dominated legislature and executive branch will allow them to continue to grow in coming years. “By having a few more hands on deck and a talented team that’s on the field, that helps us certainly have a strategic advantage over our peers and navigate (Raleigh) effectively,” he said.
Asked whether his firm’s connection to McCrory will help the lobbying business, Price said he will leave others to answer that question.
“I look at it this way,” he said. “I’ve known Pat, now Governor, McCrory, for over 15 years. He’s been a longtime friend, and we have relationships with people all over the government sector, and that’s part of the value we add for our clients. We have strong relationships on both sides of the aisle, both in the legislature and the executive branch.”
Database editor David Raynor contributed to this report.