Three top Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials said Tuesday that state Rep. Bill Brawley offered early this year to kill a controversial town charter bill if CMS would fire its governmental liaison.
While rumors have floated for months, this is the first time anyone has gone on the record saying Brawley made the offer. School board Chair Mary McCray, Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek and Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Tuesday that Brawley, a Republican lawmaker from Matthews, told them he’d withdraw House Bill 514 if Wilcox would fire Charles Jeter, a former Republican state representative who had alienated Brawley in his new role.
It’s an offer that, if true, would be unethical and possibly illegal, experts say. Brawley agrees — and says that’s why he not only didn’t make any such statement but wouldn’t.
“Quid pro quo is illegal,” Brawley said Monday. “Why would I commit a felony over Charles Jeter?”
It’s the latest flare-up in a war of words between the school board and suburban elected officials. That battle began with a bill that lets four suburban Mecklenburg towns create their own charter schools, potentially using tax money to compete with the countywide school district. That led to an equally controversial school board threat to redraw boundaries and limit construction money for those towns. People on both sides say the future of public education is at stake, not only in the Charlotte area but potentially around North Carolina.
The incident in question happened March 5, according to two participants. That was before the General Assembly passed the town charter bill Brawley sponsored. A handful of public officials met in an attempt to iron out conflicts between CMS and the town of Matthews and eliminate the demand for separate suburban charter schools.
Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey, who attended the small, private dinner where the CMS officials say the remark was made, was adamant that Brawley said no such thing. And Lee Institute President Cyndee Patterson, who moderated the discussion, says she didn’t hear such a comment, though she did hear Brawley air his dislike of the way Jeter had approached him about HB 514.
The latest round of accusations and denials comes as Brawley faces a contested race for re-election. And it ratchets up the rhetoric in a severely strained relationship.
“Any time there is an election season, ‘tis the season to be liars,” McCray, a Democrat, said when told Brawley denied saying he’d drop HB 514 in exchange for Jeter’s firing. “He point blank said that. Rep. Brawley knows he said that.”
Brawley called the Observer Monday, when he had heard a reporter was inquiring about the rumor but before anyone had gone on the record confirming it, to offer his account of the incident. Tuesday night, after being told the three CMS leaders contradicted him, Brawley responded by text and email: “In an apparent attempt to create a distraction from their unpopular actions, I would expect nothing less from these members of CMS, given the backlash from parents in the communities I represent,” he wrote.
McCray, Wilcox and Cheek say they didn’t file any kind of complaint about Brawley’s comment and didn’t discuss it publicly until an Observer reporter asked about it Tuesday. McCray says that’s because the participants had agreed to keep their talks confidential so they could speak freely. She said she considers that agreement moot now that the bill has passed.
Wilcox, who is registered Republican but says he considers himself independent, said he is dismayed that the old comment has come to light at a time when he’d rather be bridging political gaps. But he said he felt a duty to confirm that McCray and Cheek are telling the truth.
The Observer asked about the comment after Justin Parmenter, a CMS teacher and education blogger, posted over the weekend that Brawley had “reportedly” made the offer and that it “appears to be a clear violation of North Carolina law governing legislative ethics.” His post linked to an April story from WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, that mentioned the Jeter rumor — attributed to unnamed sources — as one of several “interesting things” happening in connection with the CMS-Matthews talks.
Jeter, a Republican and former state legislator from Huntersville, said CMS leaders told him shortly after the meeting that Brawley had sought his dismissal. He said he considers it a badge of honor that “he is so fearful of me doing my job and doing it well that he wants to get rid of me.”
Brawley says the conflict between him and Jeter dates back to Jeter’s time as a state representative, when the two clashed over plans for a toll road in northern Mecklenburg County.
Jeter resigned his legislative seat in 2016 and was hired by CMS General Counsel George Battle III, a Democrat who has run for Congress, to represent CMS in its dealings with other governmental bodies. That role often puts Jeter at odds with Brawley and other Republicans in Raleigh.
Brawley introduced the municipal charter bill in 2017, when the House approved it but the Senate did not. This year CMS board members tried to persuade Brawley and Matthews town officials to drop the bill and work with the countywide district to improve schools, rather than pursuing a separate path that they argued would weaken public education, increase segregation and waste taxpayer money.
Patterson and the Foundation for the Carolinas got involved, hoping to bring the two groups together.
Brawley says before the first get-together, Jeter came to Raleigh to try to persuade Brawley to withdraw HB 514. Brawley says he found Jeter’s approach so offensive that “I threw him out of my office.”
The March 5 private dinner meeting, hosted at the Lee Institute, brought together Brawley, Mayor Bailey and the three CMS leaders, with Patterson leading the discussion, the participants say. All agree that Jeter’s name came up in an unfavorable light.
Patterson says Brawley vented about Jeter’s visit to his office. As for urging CMS to fire Jeter, Patterson says, “I did not hear that. It could be, but I didn’t hear it.”
McCray, Cheek and Wilcox all say Brawley told the group that he would make HB 514 would “go away” or “disappear” if CMS fired Jeter. All three say one of them told Brawley that was not an appropriate request, though they differ over which one of them responded. They all say there’s no doubt Brawley made the comment, and he did not appear to be joking.
“He poked his finger on the table and said, ‘This will all go away if you fire Charlie Jeter,’ ” said Cheek, a Republican.
“I took it as a statement made in anger and frustration,” Wilcox said.
Brawley, however, says someone else at the meeting — he didn’t recall who — mentioned firing Jeter. Brawley said he flippantly replied that if that was going to happen CMS should wait until after the election because “if Charles Jeter is fired I’ll be blamed for it.”
“I never offered to cancel the bill, nor would I,” Brawley said, adding that he doesn’t want CMS to fire Jeter: “You don’t interfere with your enemy when they’re making a mistake.”
“I’m not going to go to jail over something that stupid,” Brawley told the Observer.
Mayor Bailey, a Republican, was vague on details, saying Jeter’s name came up but substantiating neither account of the actual discussion. He said no one at the meeting connected Jeter’s employment with CMS to the fate of HB 514. “I unequivocally will say that that was not said in that room,” he said Tuesday.
Is it illegal?
Despite Brawley’s comments about committing a felony and going to jail, it’s not clear whether such a remark would be illegal.
“It would clearly be unethical,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. He said it would fall to a district attorney to decide whether such an offer would constitute an illegal quid pro quo, or an offer to exchange legislative favors in return for something.
McLennan said the expert would be Gerry Cohen, a lawyer and retired bill-drafter for the General Assembly.
Cohen worked with CMS on a May report analyzing potential problems with HB 514, many of which legislators addressed before passing the bill. But he said Tuesday he never heard about Brawley’s alleged bid to get Jeter fired, and isn’t sure which laws might apply.
Cohen said his first thought was a section of state law that defines bribery and economic threats made to influence legislation as a felony. However, that applies to people trying to inflluence legislators, not to legislators trying to influence other public bodies. Another section says that it is unethical for legislators to promise or threaten legislative action “for the purpose of influencing or in retaliation for any action regarding State employee hirings, promotions, grievances, or disciplinary actions.”
Jeter is an employee of CMS, which receives more than half its operating budget from the state. Its employees are eligible for state health and retirement plans.
“One could view that threat as unethical without it being illegal,” Cohen said.
Superintendent Wilcox said he had no idea that Brawley’s remark might have legal or ethical consequences for the legislator until reading Parmenter’s blog post. He said he is saddened that public focus on the comment forces people to choose sides.
“I think right now this boils down to who do you trust?” Wilcox said.
Patterson, the Lee Institute president, said personal and political conflicts have derailed cooperation at every step, even when she thought talks were making progress.
“It’s a distraction,” she said, “that could blow up the system.”