Senator whiffs on obvious conflict of interest

The Observer editorial board

Sen. Ralph Hise is under investigation by the state Board of Elections for campaign finance irregularities.
Sen. Ralph Hise is under investigation by the state Board of Elections for campaign finance irregularities. cseward@newsobserver.com

We’ve lost count of the reasons Americans generally don’t trust politicians. On Tuesday, another log was added to the fire in North Carolina.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine in Mitchell County, helped shepherd through fundamental changes to the state Board of Elections even as the board was investigating serious complaints against him. He should have recused himself from this obvious conflict of interests, and he should do so going forward.

The Board of Elections in March began investigating complaints that Hise violated election law. One of the complaints, from Wake County voter and government watchdog Greg Flynn, alleged that Hise illegally paid himself more than $10,000 from his campaign account, failed to disclose a number of contributions from PACs and provided incomplete information on his donors and expenses.

The elections board notified Hise that it had begun an investigation. Soon after that, Hise was named one of three Senate conferees to craft legislation that overhauls the Board of Elections. Hise is the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Elections.

The bill, Senate Bill 68, takes power away from the governor and the elections board. Under Pat McCrory and previous governors, the state board of elections had five members, with three from the governor’s party. SB 68 creates an eight-member board with four from each major party, with a Republican chairman in presidential years and a Democratic chairman in off years. It’s now being challenged in court.

Whatever one thinks about the legislature’s effort to hinder an executive branch agency and the governor’s control of it, it’s clear that Hise should have stayed far away from the matter knowing the board was investigating him at that very time.

Though the legislature has completed its work on this bill, Hise should recuse himself going forward because related issues could emerge at the General Assembly. Legislators could seek to limit the board’s subpoena power or its ability to levy fines, for instance.

Hise did not respond to a phone call and two emails from the Observer editorial board seeking comment on Tuesday.

Flynn’s complaint details $50,694.37 that Hise reported loaning his campaign, but the senator paid himself back $61,020.98, or $10,326.61 more. Flynn also found nine PACs that gave Hise a total of $9,250 that Hise didn’t report. Bob Hall of watchdog group Democracy NC said his group found Hise’s campaign disclosure reports are the worst of the 170 legislators.

Hise’s failure to recuse himself on the elections legislation means he either lacks the ethics to do so or lacks the minimal awareness needed to recognize such a blatant conflict. He should vow to stay away from elections board matters in the future – or Senate leaders should force him off of them.

In the meantime, he should help the Board of Elections get to the bottom of his mess of a report.