Last month, a couple of high profile resignations in House Speaker Tillis's office drew attention to the lobbyist and legislator relationships in Raleigh. In the fallout, reform to the current ethics laws is being discussed, but no one has any answers yet on how to legislate romance. This report examines the issue of lobby ethics in reports that grew out of a national project called the State Integrity Investigation.
Zeb Alley was a state senator in the early 1970s and has been a lobbyist in Raleigh for over 30 years. Photo: Tanner Latham
Zeb Alley's experience as a Raleigh lobbyist stretches back over 30 years. And he minces no words when asked about relationships between lobbyists and legislators. "Well of course it happens," he says. "Just as long as men wear pants and ladies wear skirts, it'll happen."
And it has.
Charles Thomas was House Speaker Thom Tillis's chief of staff. Until the Raleigh News and Observer revealed his affair with Jessica Hayes, a lobbyist with the North Carolina Home Builders Association. Thomas immediately resigned. The news prompted Tillis to ask his staff if anyone else was dating a lobbyist. Amy Hobbs, one of his policy advisors, stepped forward. She was involved with Dean Plunkett, a lobbyist for the gay rights group Equality NC. And she also resigned. But there was nothing illegal about what they did.
There are strict lobby ethics laws in place. They were passed in 2006 following several political scandals. The laws prohibit legislators from accepting any gifts from lobbyists. Something as simple as a cup of coffee is off limits. But it violates no ethics laws for a lawmaker and a lobbyist to have sex. That obvious conflict was part of the lobby ethics law debate back then, but Democratic Representative Rick Glazier of Fayetteville says it failed to make the final draft because they couldn't decide where an appropriate relationship ends and an inappropriate one begins.
"Because of the difficulty of definition, that issue was sort of punted," says Glazier.
But back to Speaker Tillis. Did the Home Builders Association have more access to him because of the lobbyist's affair with the chief of staff? Absolutely not, Tillis said in a conference call after the affair was revealed.
"I am completely satisfied that the Home Builders didn't receive any favorable treatment," he said. "I think some of the initiatives they proposed moved forward on merit, and some didn't."
That doesn't matter, says Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which lobbies for lobby law reform. He says that, once again, the public has reason to mistrust state government.
"It feeds into the cynicism that people have that everybody in public service is out to benefit themselves and they're looking to try to get everything they can from the lobbyists."
The tone in Raleigh is changing. Ethics laws are being re-examined as a result of what happened. "Those connections have caused the legislative ethics committee to indicate that they're going to look into recommending some additional rules for dealing with situations such as that," says House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Chapel Hill. He spearheaded the ethics law reforms in 2006 and now heads the legislative ethics committee. "Maybe some additional rules are on the way."
And that's as far as it's gotten. Looking into it. Because the bottom-line question still remains: How can you codify romance? Representative Glazier is pushing for transparency, saying that relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers should be disclosed to the public. But even he is flummoxed by the logistics. "And then the question becomes disclosure to who and what venue," says Glazier. "How detailed? Does one disclose when they go out on a date, or 5 dates, or 10 dates? All of those are issues we have to take a look at."
While the romance part is cloudy, there still could be legal ramifications. The North Carolina State Ethics Commission is investigating the two lobbyists who were involved with Tillis staffers. What's in question is whether or not they broke the gift ban law. For example, when they went out on dates, did the lobbyist pick up the bill? That's a definite no-no, and it's punishable by up to a $5,000 fine per offense.
The former Tillis staffers, on the other hand, are not going to be investigated. They are no longer within the state commission's jurisdiction, because they resigned.
As a side note, the state's ethics laws were examined as part of a project called the State Integrity Investigation. It was a nationwide study organized by the groups Public Radio International, Global Integrity, and the Center for Public Integrity. North Carolina scored low in the Legislative Responsibility category in part because of loopholes in the gift ban laws for lobbyists.