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Cooper: NC public officials too secretive with records

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper .
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper . ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said Monday that elected officials must accurately complete ethical disclosure forms, and he said state policies charging fees for public records are part of a “shift toward secrecy” in government.

Cooper spoke at the N.C. Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Day, a gathering of journalists, citizens and government officials to focus on transparency in government. While Cooper didn’t mention Gov. Pat McCrory by name, his comments come as the governor faces criticism for amending his required ethics disclosure forms several times to show previously unreported trips and Duke Energy stock holdings.

“We need to make sure that candidates and public officials comply,” Cooper said, adding that the public needs to know about “economic ties that could be a conflict of interest.”

Asked about McCrory’s ethics disclosures, Cooper said, “I don’t know about that situation.” He added that the forms aren’t difficult to understand.

Cooper, a Democrat, is widely expected to run against McCrory in 2016, though he hasn’t formally announced his candidacy.

At the open government forum, Cooper said he’s observed a shift from transparency to secrecy among state lawmakers and public officials in recent years. He called for change in the “culture” of public agencies that withhold public information because they’re uncertain over whether the documents can be legally released.

“This movement away from openness is a threat to the foundation of our state,” Cooper said. “Real access to public information is a foundation of our freedom. North Carolina has a tradition of putting government out in the sunshine. The light of public scrutiny protects people.”

Cooper touted his own push for transparency, including a fight he spearheaded 20 years ago to release information about public employees who were severely disciplined or fired.

But state officials still have progress to make in terms of releasing information that belongs to the public, he said. He bemoaned obstacles placed in the way of North Carolinians whose efforts at inspecting public records were stymied.

Some examples, he said, include:

▪ A local citizen who was charged $415 for copying records he requested. “That’s not good customer service,” Cooper said. “That’s obstruction.”

▪ A local government meeting that was moved to a smaller room with limited public access.

▪ Legislators, he said, who have yet to respond to two measures he’s introduced that would form an investigative grand jury to aid in prosecuting public officials accused of corruption and that would make lying to the State Bureau of Investigation a felony as penalizing as lying to an agent with the FBI.

“Public officials must be held to high standards,” he said. “Watchdog eyes make for better laws and better decisions by public officials.”

As Cooper spoke on the importance of open government, the N.C. Republican Party filed a request seeking Cooper’s own email records; correspondence with lawmakers; correspondence with former Govs. Bev Perdue and Mike Easley; correspondence with former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton; and Cooper’s official calendar since 2001, including use of state vehicles and airplanes for official travel.

The email part of the request from the GOP asks Cooper to provide copies of all emails he’s sent during his 14 years in office, including correspondence with governors and legislators.

“Attorney General Roy Cooper can give a speech about defending transparency and wave around his public records manual, but when it comes to his own record of open government, the facts tell a different story,” party Executive Director Todd Poole said in a news release. “The truth is that Roy Cooper only defends the state’s open records law when it’s convenient for himself or his political allies.”

Cooper told reporters Monday that he hadn’t yet seen the request but plans to comply with records laws. “We provide public records to those who ask for them,” he said.

Cooper also weighed in on the hotly-debated CIAA surcharge tacked onto customer bills at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in uptown Charlotte during the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament last month. His office on Monday was expected to tally the number of complaints it had received in the last week.

“It’s clear the surcharge was a bad idea,” he said. Steve Riley of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

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