Messy standoff on ethics in Raleigh

The N.C. General Assembly and a state agency it created to monitor ethics and restore public trust in government have unwittingly undermined a concerted effort to clean up wrongdoing in Raleigh.

That was certainly not the legislature's intent when it passed new legislation governing official conduct. The State Ethics Commission was given the job of receiving financial disclosure reports from a wide array of public officials, dispensing advisory opinions on proper compliance with the code of ethics and investigating certain violations of the state's ethics laws.

But when the Office of State Auditor – created by the N.C. Constitution to monitor financial, performance and other issues related to how state agencies conduct public business, began eyeing a state legislator earlier this year, some lawmakers took umbrage. They amended the law to keep the auditor from investigating possible breaches of the state government ethics act. Auditor Les Merritt's only role would be to refer allegations of violations of the ethics act, the separate legislative ethics act or new lobbying laws to the State Ethics Commission.

On the face of it that appears to be a rational act of a legislative body concerned about empowering a single state authority to investigate potential problems. But in the wider realm of public opinion, it looks like legislators are resisting efforts by watchdog institutions to figure out whether official wrongdoing has occurred.

In this case it doesn't involve a legislator, but how the ethics commission reacted after a staffer for Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue was allowed to examine her financial disclosure statement in an unsupervised office of the commission. While the commission has no formal rules for examining such public records, it had issued an informal guide that there would be no unsupervised inspections of those records.

A clerk at the ethics commission had noted on a logbook that Will Polk, a lawyer for Lt. Gov. Perdue, had been able to look at her records in an otherwise empty room. The commission's assistant director later deleted that note. After a newspaper reporter asked about it, the clerk who had made the notation was fired.

The auditor began an inquiry. The commission sued in Superior Court to halt the inquiry, arguing that it violates the new state law and that the auditor has a conflict of interests because a staff member used to work at the commission. Thursday, the auditor fired a broadside, saying the commission's action “paints a picture of potential destruction of evidence” and amounted to an attempt “to conceal the facts of this case from the public.” The commission fired back: The auditor ought to welcome a court ruling resolving this conflict because it might give the auditor's inquiry “legitimacy it now sorely lacks.”

So it goes. Both sides have their arguments, but the flap must leave the public wondering how two agencies concerned with standards of conduct and competent performance got into such a dissing contest. And it raises this troubling question: Who is to watch the watchdog?