Four years ago this week, former Democrat Speaker of the House Jim Black was released from federal prison after serving three years of a 63-month federal prison term for corruption charges.
Interestingly, the requirement that state legislators comply with ethics laws is a fairly recent phenomenon. After the multi-year cascading corruption scandals that ensnared Mr. Black and which led to a one million dollar fine, legislators took a serious look at the possible unhealthy connections between lawmakers and the shadowy economic interests they might have.
In 2006, concern over these “self-dealing” legislators prompted the General Assembly to pass the Government Ethics Act (House Bill 1843). The law has required greater financial disclosure by legislators since then — and it also empanelled an independent and bipartisan State Ethics Commission to oversee compliance and enforcement.
Surprisingly, however, state ethics laws don’t apply to local elected officials (such as city councilmembers and county commissioners). But that might change, at least in part.
Legislation was introduced last year by Republicans that broadens the law to require that local elected officials also comply with some of the provisions of the Government Ethics Act, just like other public servants who are covered by the law (called “covered persons”). Specifically affected under the change would be governing boards of: cities, counties, local boards of education, unified governments, sanitary districts, and consolidated city-counties.
In a recent poll done in Buncombe County, more than 80% of respondents said that local elected officials should also be required to disclose things like potential financial conflicts of interest and investments, as state and federal officials are now required to do.
Under the proposed changes of House Bill 659, officials would be required to submit a statement of economic interest, and the bill restricts the use of public funds that may serve to benefit elected officials. Currently, local lawmakers can cast votes on resolutions that spend taxpayer money in a way that personally benefits them financially — without the inconvenience of having to reveal that financial interest to the public.
For example, right now a local county commissioner could, say, vote to appropriate funds to a nonprofit organization on whose board she also serves as paid staff; the nonprofit could then turn around and give her a pay raise — using the very same funds that she voted to give them in the first place. In this way, local elected officials direct public money and favors to themselves without the taxpayer being any the wiser.
Bill sponsors believe that House Bill 659, which they look forward to being introduced next session, would bring greater transparency and accountability to local governments in North Carolina.
Buncombe County Courthouse. Photo by Robert E. Weston, Jr.