Editorial: The story behind the ethics call the governor never got

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

Sept. 29, 2014, was the kind of day that should rattle a governor.

Sometime that Monday afternoon, Pat McCrory’s chief counsel, Bob Stephens, received a call from an attorney at the N.C. Board of Elections. In that call and in another later that day, the attorney told Stephens about concerns the Board of Elections staff had with a board member, Paul Foley, whom McCrory had appointed.

A Board of Elections spokesman revealed details of those conversations to the Observer’s editorial board this week.

In the weeks before Sept. 29, the elections board had discovered that Foley’s law firm had received $1.3 million from the target of an elections investigation into questionable political donations, including to the governor’s campaign. Foley, who hadn’t revealed that connection to Board of Elections staff, had been asking a lot of questions about the investigation.

Foley would eventually resign 10 months later, but only after McCrory threatened to remove him last week for continuing to demand updates on the investigation. Why did the governor wait so long? According to the governor’s office, Stephens hadn’t told McCrory about those two phone calls last September.

We wrote about that claim in this space Monday. Stephens, we said, was either being made a scapegoat to protect the governor, or he had made a significant mistake in not telling McCrory about an alarming ethics concern.

The governor has furiously responded, and Stephens has contended that he considered the matter resolved on Sept. 29 because Foley had said earlier that day that he would recuse himself from the elections investigation. Stephens said so again in a letter to the editorial board Wednesday.

“In light of Mr. Foley’s recusal, I believed this matter had closed,” he wrote. “His recusal left nothing for me to report to the governor, and nothing for the governor to do.”

The feeling was different, however, on the other end of the line on Sept. 29.

“It was not a call of ‘Look, this is fine, there is no issue here,’ ” Board of Elections spokesperson Josh Lawson told the editorial board this week about the conversations with Stephens. “It wasn’t that everything was great and he’s recused.”

The calls were made, says Lawson, because at that point, Foley’s actions already were serious enough to consider his removal from the board. That was something the governor, and not the elections board, could do. Lawson says Stephens was told that, too, by the elections attorney on Sept. 29.

But last week, after the Observer editorial board initially wrote about Foley, the governor’s office said its legal staff didn’t know even then if the governor could remove Foley from the board. After the Observer provided the N.C. statute that said he could, McCrory used that statute in threatening to remove Foley before he resigned, according to the governor’s office.

All of which might’ve been done nearly a year ago had Stephens not kept the phone calls to himself, as he says he did. Given Foley’s behavior and the election staff’s level of concern then, Stephens also could have checked in – without meddling with the independent elections board and investigation – to make sure Foley wasn’t still meddling either. As it turns out, Foley was.

More troubling – and still hard to believe – is that the governor wasn’t even told about a board member he appointed inappropriately asking about an investigation that involved donations to the governor’s campaign.

Given the alarm that the elections staff sounded, we continue to wonder how – and why – anyone would dismiss it.