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Lobbyist or liaison? Jeter registers his new CMS role after blogger raises questions

Charles Jeter on his first day as government liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in January 2017.
Charles Jeter on his first day as government liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in January 2017. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Former state Rep. Charles Jeter this week registered his new role as paid liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, after a Huntersville blogger questioned whether he was following state rules for lobbyists.

Eric Rowell, a Huntersville Republican, has been keeping tabs on Jeter’s career since Jeter announced in July that he was resigning as the state representative for a district that stretches down the Catawba River from Huntersville to Lake Wylie. Jeter, who is also a Republican from Huntersville, said he wanted to devote more time to his wife and children.

“Any time a politician resigns citing the need to spend more time with family, that catches my attention,” said Rowell, an attorney who used to write for the north suburban Herald Weekly. In September he wrote a column for that newspaper questioning the 15-day gap between Jeter’s announcement and his formal notice to the state Board of Elections, which triggered the process to replace Jeter on the November ballot.

In early December, I reported that Jeter had been hired for a $91,000-a-year job as government relations coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He works for the CMS legal department to represent the district’s views to state, local and federal policymakers.

Rowell questioned whether that violated the state’s requirement for a six-month “cooling-off period” between leaving the General Assembly and starting work as a lobbyist. The answer: No. The job is classified as a local government liaison, not a lobbyist.

On Monday, Rowell posted a blog detailing further questions about Jeter’s job and his efforts to get answers. Among them: Why hadn’t Jeter registered as a liaison? How was the job posted? How many others applied and were interviewed?

I called the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office Wednesday to ask whether Jeter was required to register. At the end of the day a spokeswoman called back: Yes, if he’s going to lobby the General Assembly. And she said Jeter had registered that day.

CMS General Counsel George Battle III, Jeter’s boss, said Jeter’s predecessor didn’t register. He said he had consulted with state officials and concluded that Jonathan Sink, a lawyer who spent most of his time doing other work, didn’t need to register as a liaison. But he said he and Jeter decided to file the papers this time.

Jeter said Thursday he had always planned to register before he starts working directly with his former legislative colleagues. He said that work will start later this month, after the school board approves a legislative agenda and the General Assembly reconvenes.

Some of the district’s responses to Rowell’s questions about the hiring process were head-scratchers. Rowell got a copy of the job description for “legislative advocate,” a salary range ($71,572 to $91,187) and the time that it was advertised (one week in October, on the CMS job board).

As for the query about the number of applicants and interviews, Rowell reports that he was initially told that “CMS Legal has determined that no records exist of this information.” When he pressed, he was told that those numbers are not part of the personnel information that is defined as public under state law. And when he asked yet again, Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block emailed him to say that “disclosing such information runs the risk of someone being able to identify the applicants. This would represent a violation of personnel privacy laws.”

What? While I can’t quibble with the notion that CMS isn’t legally required to release the number of applicants or interviews, the district clearly is not prohibited from doing so. And how would knowing the number of applicants reveal their identity? In fact, the school board recently released the number of applicants, semifinalists and finalists in the recent hiring of a superintendent, despite an intense focus on confidentiality of the applicants who weren’t chosen.

Battle said Thursday that he doesn’t understand that argument either, and that the refusal to release numbers didn’t come from him. Battle said there were four applicants and he interviewed three of them.

Rowell, who describes himself as an attentive voter and skeptic, said Thursday that he hasn’t found evidence that anything is amiss in Jeter’s hiring, but he wanted answers to his questions. And being denied those answers has made him more suspicious, he said.

“No one ever learns this lesson: The cover-up is always worse,” he said.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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