N.C. ethics chair blasts auditor

N.C. State Ethics Commission Chairman Robert Farmer blasted State Auditor Les Merritt on Friday, accusing him of leveling “bogus and spurious allegations” and calling the auditor's investigation of the commission a “total sham.”

The verbal artillery is the most recent fire between the two agencies, which have battled over who is supposed to enforce state ethics law and whether the commission gave Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue's office preferential treatment.

Farmer, a former superior court judge, spoke at the beginning of a commission meeting. He lambasted Merritt's inquiry into the firing of an ethics commission employee after an incident involving a Perdue lawyer reviewing the lieutenant governor's file.

Merritt said the commission is trying to use a lawsuit to hinder his investigation into allegations of altered records, special treatment for high-level aides, a retaliatory firing and a cover-up.

“The Commission staff's disrespect for public transparency by suing to block an investigation – and now Mr. Farmer's unmeasured rhetoric – only feed the speculation by the public and the news media: What are they trying to hide?” Merritt said in a prepared statement.

Merritt's investigation grew out of a hot line tip that Will Polk, Perdue's general counsel, was granted special access to review her statements of financial interest last fall. Such statements help identify potential conflicts of interest.

An office assistant at the commission, Amanda Thaxton, wrote in a log that Polk was allowed to review Perdue's documents alone in a closed office. Polk has said he did not ask for special treatment.

Kathleen Edwards, the commission's assistant director, later removed Thaxton's notation. Thaxton was fired in July after the (Raleigh) News & Observer asked about the records.

Edwards said she was not trying to hide anything, and Commission Executive Director Perry Newson said the firing of Thaxton was not retaliatory.

The commission filed a lawsuit over Merritt's probe, asking a judge to remove Merritt from the investigation and put it in the hands of another agency such as the State Bureau of Investigation. The commission contends that the probe is not within the auditor's purview and that Merritt has a conflict because his chief investigator previously worked for the ethics commission.

Merritt sought to have the suit dismissed, saying he is exempt from such interference.

On Friday, Farmer charged that Merritt prematurely released a report on his investigation last week without waiting for a pending court ruling.