Raleigh Scandals Call for Reforms
Back in 2007, like a drunk who vows to go on the wagon after a particularly embarrassing binge, the N.C. General Assembly reacted to a major scandal by passing significant lobbying reforms.
Let's hope a similar act-cleaning impulse results from the most recent highly public outrage, which involved a series of sleazy revelations about former Gov. Mike Easley - and the handing-down of 51 federal indictments against Ruffin Poole, who is accused of pulling a lot of ethically questionable strings as a former top aide to Easley.
The previous shenanigans the reader will remember, had their origin in the 2002 election, in which Republicans won control of the state House 61-59. But just before the legislative session began, Republican Rep. Michael Decker abruptly switched parties. The ensuing 60-60 partisan deadlock allowed Democratic state House Speaker Jim Black, rather than give up his job, to work out a unique co-speaker arrangement with Moore County's own former Rep. Richard Morgan.
Only later did it emerge that Decker had agreed to switch parties after a rendezvous with Black in the men's room of a Salisbury pancake house, during which $50,000 changed hands. There were other hand-offs from other people in other bathrooms. Ultimately, both Black and Decker (whose names suggested they should be manufacturing power tools together instead) ended up in prison.
Timing Is Right
Just as the severity of the earlier scandal ensured that the 2007 lobbying reforms would have some teeth in them, perhaps the powers-that-be in Raleigh will now be shamed into enacting some or all of the cluster of wholesome changes long sought by a coalition of good-government groups. Most are aimed at forcing political fundraising out of the shadows and into the sunshine.
Here's a prime example: Some private individuals who raise big amounts of campaign cash for particular candidates may do so strictly out of political conviction. Many others, though, do it in the expectation that there will be payback in the form of appointment to a major state board. One needed reform would require all members of the 15 most powerful such boards to make public relevant information about their fundraising activities.
Another desirable change affects "bundlers" - those who, while they may not contribute massive amounts themselves, serve the function of collecting a great many contributions from others and packaging them for delivery to the campaign. The law should require full disclosure from all such "bundlers," so that the state's voters could draw their own conclusions.
While they're at it, the legislators should close another big loophole. That's the one that now allows even unopposed candidates to raise bodacious amounts of campaign money anyway, which they may then distribute among the campaigns of other candidates who do have to deal with the inconvenience of actual opponents.
By letting their own campaign largesse trickle down to selected others, powerful legislators can make themselves even more powerful by generating a sense of obligation in lesser colleagues, who can then be counted on for support when maneuvering begins for key legislative leadership posts. Thus are political debts called in when they come in most handy. Black, by all accounts, was a master at that game. There should be limits on such bounty-sharing.
Changes such as those outlined above are long overdue. The iron is hot right now, and the General Assembly session that begins this spring would be an opportune time to strike.
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