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Tillis pushed several major political contributors for UNC board, documents reveal

By Joseph Neff and J. Andrew Curliss
jneff@newsobserver.com acurliss@newsobserver.com

When his fellow Republicans questioned why House Speaker Thom Tillis backed a Democrat to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in March, the speaker had a simple reason:

R. Doyle Parrish had raised a lot of money.

“I would estimate he is directly responsible for more than $100,000.00 in financial support through personal contributions to my campaign committee and other candidates and through the Hospitality Alliance,” Tillis wrote in a March 21 email to House leaders.

Tillis also strongly supported G.A. Sywassink for the board, even after the Republican caucus rejected Sywassink because he lives in South Carolina. The House narrowly elected Sywassink after Tillis circulated a list of his preferred candidates that included Sywassink.

Sywassink, owner of a Charlotte freight company, had given $7,500 to Tillis’ campaign for the state House. In June, Sywassink gave $25,000 and Parrish gave $20,000 to the super PAC supporting Tillis’ bid for the U.S. Senate next year.

Tillis was not available for comment Friday, an aide said.

Parrish, of Raleigh, is the president of Summit Hospitality Group, which manages 13 Marriott and Hilton hotels as well as the Dunhill Hotel in uptown Charlotte. According to his company website, Parrish sits on the board of the Hospitality Alliance of North Carolina, a nonprofit trade association for hotels. Parrish could not be reached for comment.

Sywassink has previously said his contributions show his support for Tillis and are not connected to the appointment.

Michaux: It’s ‘pay for play’

Democratic opponents said that Tillis was trading appointments for campaign contributions, a charge frequently leveled by Republicans when Democrats controlled the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion.

“It sure sounds like a pay for play to me,” Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said. “It seems pretty blatant.”

Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ spokesman, said Tillis was merely surrounding himself with supporters who share his vision. Shaw said the Board of Governors’ appointments took place in a rigorous and bipartisan fashion.

Shaw’s previous job was as spokesman for the N.C. Republican Party. When Democrats were in power, Shaw and former Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer excoriated Democrats such as former Speaker Jim Black and former governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, who they said put North Carolina government up for sale to the highest bidder. Shaw said Republicans don’t.

“That is not how we do business,” Shaw said.

A seat on the UNC Board of Governors is one of the most prestigious and sought-after appointments in North Carolina business and political circles.

What the board does

The board oversees the 17-campus system and is stocked with business and political heavyweights.

The House Republican caucus met privately on March 20 to discuss which candidates to back for the eight House appointments.

Republicans and Democrats had nominated 16 people for the eight spots. Because Republicans have a strong majority, they were in position to win any vote if they stuck together.

The Republicans decided to consider only Republicans, according to Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, a Caldwell County Republican.

After the candidates addressed the caucus, the Republican House members held several rounds of votes. By a process of elimination, the caucus settled on a list of 10 candidates, Starnes said.

Starnes emailed the list to the GOP caucus and asked the members to vote for any eight of the 10 candidates, an action that would decide the GOP slate for the vote of the full House. Parrish received the least votes of the ten candidates.

Between the caucus and the vote, Tillis gave all Republicans a list of six “Speaker’s Recommended Candidates.” It included the top three vote-getters – Rodney Hood, Henry Hinton and Champ Mitchell.

Tillis also recommended Parrish; Laura Wiley, who was the sixth-highest vote-getter, and G.A. Sywassink. Four of the six candidates had given money to Tillis’ campaigns, and Wiley’s family is a longtime donor to GOP campaigns.

The caucus had rejected Sywassink because he lives in Hilton Head, S.C. “He was always toward the bottom,” Starnes said. “The biggest concern was that he lived out of state.”

When the full House voted, Sywassink squeaked onto the Board of Governors, finishing eighth with a one-vote margin. Parrish had the fifth-most votes.

‘A strong supporter’

In reporting the results, The (Raleigh) News & Observer noted that Parrish was the only Democrat elected by either chamber. Some House Republicans complained that they had unwittingly voted for a Democrat.

After reading The N&O report, Tillis responded with the email to his leadership team. He said he was embarrassed that he had led the caucus to believe Parrish was a Republican and that he did not know Parrish’s party affiliation. Tillis said he would have still sponsored him regardless.

“I intend to publicly apologize to the caucus on Tuesday,” he wrote. “If the caucus feels strongly and is willing to assert their will through a voted caucus position, I will ask Doyle to resign his position if you all agree that is the best course.”

In defending Parrish, Tillis referred to Parrish’s “open and substantial support in 2010” and the $100,000 he raised.

“… He has been a strong supporter since the first time we met when it was not certain that we would win a majority,” Tillis wrote. “He has personally sponsored events for me and/or the caucus in Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington.”

The email went on to discuss the conservative politics of Parrish’s wife, a Republican. It does not say anything about Parrish’s positions on higher education.

Bob Hall is director of Democracy North Carolina, a campaign finance watchdog group that has investigated fundraising irregularities of both major political parties. He found Tillis’ defense of Parrish to be troubling.

“This reveals how preoccupied Tillis is with raising money and that appears to be a major qualification for someone to get appointed,” said Hall, who advocates for open elections and campaign finance reform. “The reason given isn’t that he’s got a commitment to the university or has a background in education policy.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840
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