Editorial: Is McCrory’s chief counsel really this bad?

The Observer editorial board

Governor-elect Pat McCory introduced Bob Stephens, second from right, and other members of his administration team in December 2012.
Governor-elect Pat McCory introduced Bob Stephens, second from right, and other members of his administration team in December 2012. tiwabu@newsobserver.com

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory has a choice to make.

He should either stop throwing his chief legal counsel, Bob Stephens, under a bus, or he should dismiss Stephens for poor judgment and incompetence.

At least three times now, Stephens has taken the blame for ethical issues in the governor’s office. The latest might be the most alarming.

The Associated Press reported last week that Stephens was aware for 10 months that the law firm of a Board of Elections member, Paul Foley, had received $1.3 million in payments from the target of an investigation into questionable political donations.

Foley resigned from the board last week, but only after McCrory threatened to remove him for pressing elections staff for regular updates on that investigation.

A lawyer at the agency twice raised concerns to Stephens about the potential conflict involving Foley’s law firm, the AP reports. So why hadn’t the governor taken action earlier? According to McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis, Stephens never raised the issue with McCrory.

If true, that’s a startling lapse in judgment. It’s also not the first mistake involving the governor, Stephens and ethics.

McCrory also blamed Stephens last year after the governor said on his ethics form that he didn’t own any Duke Energy stock on Dec. 31, 2013, when in fact he did. McCrory said then that Stephens “misread” the forms. Stephens said the same in an op-ed published in the Observer.

Earlier this year, McCrory again had an issue with information he should have disclosed on ethics forms, this time more than $13,000 in travel costs from 2013 events. Again, Stephens stepped up to say he misunderstood the form.

In either case, Stephens could have asked state officials for simple guidance on the forms, if he was confused. He and McCrory chose instead to err on the side of not revealing information.

Now we have a different type of disclosure issue. A fundraiser for the governor gets appointed by the governor to the state Board of Elections. He is found to have connections to a businessman the board is investigating for possible illegal donations to the governor and others. That should have set alarms off in the governor’s office.

Instead, crickets?

The governor’s office told the editorial board Friday that because Foley said he would recuse himself from the investigation – a promise he repeatedly broke – Stephens considered the matter resolved. Still, he never thought to even mention it to the governor?

That’s even harder to swallow than a seasoned lawyer having comprehension issues with standard ethics forms.

Make no mistake, Stephens is highly regarded by legal professionals here in Charlotte, where he’s a lifelong resident and respected attorney. It’s difficult to believe he’s making elementary errors like these.

That’s why the governor and Stephens should answer more questions about the circumstances surrounding Foley. Why didn’t Stephens check in to see that Foley was keeping his pledge to stay out of the investigation, especially given that staff had reported other troubling issues with Foley’s demeanor and management style?

Also, if Stephens did withhold this critical information from his boss – and that’s a big if – how can McCrory still have confidence in his counsel’s judgment?

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