Politics & Government

Ethics commission dismisses complaint against lawmaker

N.C. Rep. Donny Lambeth, R.-Forsyth
N.C. Rep. Donny Lambeth, R.-Forsyth

The N.C. Ethics Commission has dismissed a complaint filed against Rep. Donny Lambeth by a whistleblower who contends the lawmaker betrayed his trust.

Joe Vincoli, a former hospital official who spurred a federal investigation into Carolinas HealthCare System, says that he sent emails to Lambeth in confidence in 2013 and 2014.

But later, Vincoli said, he was troubled to learn that Lambeth had forwarded those emails to officials with CHS and MedCost, a for-profit health benefits company that the Charlotte-based hospital system co-owns.

MedCost’s other owner – N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston Salem – is Lambeth’s former employer. Lambeth served as the hospital’s president from 2007 to 2011, before he was elected to the state legislature in 2012.

Vincoli says it appears Lambeth was trying to help former colleagues more than a constituent.

In May, Vincoli filed a complaint with the ethics commission alleging that Lambeth violated a state law requiring public servants to make a “diligent effort” to identify and avoid conflicts of interest.

Whistleblower contends Lambeth was trying to help former colleagues more than a constituent.

The ethics commission recently dismissed that complaint, saying that a preliminary inquiry found Vincoli’s complaint “did not allege facts sufficient to constitute a violation.”

The commission did not elaborate on its reasons for dismissing the complaint. Under state law, the panel’s deliberations are confidential.

Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican who co-chairs the House health committee, told the Observer in May that he couldn’t recall why he forwarded Vincoli’s emails to officials at CHS and MedCost.

But he said Vincoli has been his friend for years, and that he meant no harm. Lambeth also said he’s not aware of any ethical rules that would have prohibited him from forwarding the emails.

On Monday, Lambeth declined to comment about the ethics commission’s decision other than to say: “They did their work and found no violation.”

Dispute over what’s public

Some of the emails that Lambeth forwarded to officials at Carolinas HealthCare concerned a federal labor department investigation into the hospital system.

That investigation began in 2010 following a complaint from Vincoli, a former official at N.C. Baptist Hospital.

The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known as ERISA, prohibits most employers from using companies they own to provide health benefits for employees – unless they can show the Labor Department that they’re putting employees’ interests first. Vincoli questioned whether Carolinas HealthCare’s ownership and use of MedCost violated the law.

In his previous interview with the Observer, Lambeth said he routinely sends the emails he receives to agencies “to make them aware of certain situations.”

He also said at the time that he believed all emails to and from state lawmakers were public record.

But Vincoli said he found it “troubling” that Lambeth gave him a different answer in June, when he asked the lawmaker for any emails he’d sent third parties that mentioned Vincoli’s name.

In an email to Vincoli, Lambeth wrote: “I have consulted with the General Assembly staff and believe that my constituent correspondence is not a matter of public record.”

State law says the public has a right to all records “made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business.”

Walker Reagan, director of the legislative research division, said he doesn’t believe correspondence between lawmakers and constituents meets that definition.

But Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, differs. Correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents is clearly public record, Jones said.

Alexander: 704-358-5060