Those baffling N.C. ethics forms

The Observer editorial board

Gov. Pat McCrory failed to disclose trips paid for by others.
Gov. Pat McCrory failed to disclose trips paid for by others. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

What is going on in Gov. Pat McCrory’s office? Why do he and his lawyers keep having such a hard time filling out ethics forms correctly?

McCrory was forced to change his state disclosure reports on Monday when it was revealed that he had failed, again, to disclose required information.

The Republican Governors Association covered more than $13,000 in travel costs for McCrory to attend events across the country in 2013. That’s common practice. Failing to disclose it on ethics forms is not. Other state leaders, including Sen. Phil Berger and then House Speaker Thom Tillis, disclosed similar benefits on their forms.

McCrory’s chief legal counsel, Bob Stephens, emphasized Monday that the RGA routinely covers such expenses and defended that as “an accepted practice.” In doing so, Stephens misunderstands the problem as badly as he misunderstands the ethics form. The primary concern, obviously, is not that the RGA paid McCrory’s expenses. The concern is that McCrory failed to disclose the benefit he received.

Stephens said he misunderstood the form, which asks if the official accepted a “scholarship” worth more than $200 to attend an out-of-state meeting. Stephens said he interpreted “scholarship” not to include travel expenses.

The ethics form explains as part of the question: “A ‘scholarship’ is a grant-in-aid to attend a conference, meeting, or similar event.”

McCrory and Stephens need to do less interpreting and put the ethics commission on speed dial.

Looking at this in the most charitable way possible to McCrory, “scholarship” is an odd term, and the given definition raises the question of whether travel and hotel expenses to attend a conference should be included. But McCrory and his team chose not to raise the question. They instead opted to assume rather than be sure – a move that also happened to reveal less to the public.

Were this the only instance of McCrory filling out ethics forms improperly, it would be worth minimal notice. But it is not. It is a pattern with the McCrory administration: Fill out the ethics form incorrectly, have the ethics commission admonish you for that, then claim that it was an innocent misinterpretation of the form.

For instance, McCrory said on his ethics form that he didn’t own any Duke Energy stock on Dec. 31, 2013, when in fact he did. The ethics commission forced McCrory to disclose the information. In that case, Stephens also said he misinterpreted the form.

McCrory similarly failed to fully disclose on his ethics forms compensation he received from Tree.com as a company director. Again, an unclear form, the governor’s office said.

Partisans are dismissing the latest charge as a political witch hunt by a liberal group. That the complaint came from Progress NC Action does give it a political tint.

But voters should consider the facts and decide whether they are OK with error-filled ethics forms from elected officials of either party. And McCrory should do more to fulfill his campaign promise of leading a clean and transparent administration.