NC legislators seek to keep some sins in the dark

Former Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, left, was sentenced to prison over charges stemming from campaign finance irregularities.
Former Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, left, was sentenced to prison over charges stemming from campaign finance irregularities. cseward@newsobserver.com

In October, state elections officials held a public hearing about Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte. They detailed what their investigation had found: that Moore had failed to report more than $141,000 in campaign contributions and expenditures, including nearly $25,000 in ATM withdrawals.

They referred his case to Mecklenburg DA Spencer Merriweather. Moore lost his reelection bid to Nasif Majeed, at least in part because of questions the Observer had raised about his campaign finances.

Now, a bill sits on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk that would have protected Moore and other elected officials being investigated for campaign finance irregularities. The legislation would make such inquiries confidential. Had this law been in place this year, the Board of Elections could not have disclosed what they found about Moore, or even that he was being investigated, and he could have been reelected by voters kept in the dark.

This is misguided public policy and Cooper should veto it. We have this belief — OK, you could probably call it an obsession — that government officials should not do the public’s business in private. Nor should it be kept secret when public officials are found to have violated campaign finance rules while seeking the public’s support.

This provision was part of a bigger bill the legislature passed this week that would require a new primary in the 9th Congressional District if there is a new election. The bill would also restore the Board of Elections and the state Ethics Commission roughly to what they were before they were overhauled in 2017. In response to court orders that invalidated earlier changes, legislators returned the elections board to five members appointed by the governor with no more than three members from one party. And they reconstituted the Ethics Commission as its own body, with half the eight members appointed by the governor and half by the legislature.

All of these changes are appropriate. A new primary should be held in the 9th District, given the questions about absentee ballots that surround not only the general election but the primary as well. And the other changes return the state to a system that had worked fine for decades.

But the section that makes campaign finance investigations private reeks of politicians protecting their own hides. State elections officials tell the Observer editorial board that the bill appears to prevent investigations and their findings from ever becoming public, short of criminal court proceedings. The board conducted more than 200 investigations in 2018. While many of those were minor, many were not, and it appears all, including those in which legislators had to pay a fine (unless it’s appealed), would have been kept secret under this bill.

Rep. David Lewis, who helped shepherd the legislation through the House, said in an email to the editorial board Friday that it is designed to protect candidates from any overly partisan board of elections. The board has a long history, however, of going after wrongdoers of both parties.

Cooper should use his veto, and insist on a clean bill that doesn’t include this provision.