ELLIOT: North Carolinas next attorney general should vow to keep slush funds in the past

North Carolina will have a new attorney general in January, and whether the voters choose Buck Newton or Josh Stein, the winner should come into office disavowing the use of extortive tactics and political slush funds. They have no place in modern North Carolina, and instead hark back to a lawless time when a Democratic cabal ran Raleigh and handed out contracts, cash, and jobs to political favorites.
It’s hard to say when exactly the corruption reached its peak, but historians have estimated that this dark yesteryear may have begun to recede around… 2010. (Records from those days are sketchy. Especially emails, which were routinely — and illegally — deleted to avoid public scrutiny. Sound familiar?).
By 2010, one-time Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps (D) had been released from federal prison and former House Speaker Jim Black (D) was out of the penitentiary and merely under house arrest. Then again, some experts say the era ended as late as January 2013, when former Gov. Mike Easley (D) finally had his law license restored after a 2010 felony conviction caused the State Bar to pull it.
These not-so-distant reminders of how politics and government used to work in Raleigh are a powerful reason to stamp out potential sources of corruption. And there is no temptation more likely to corrupt a politician than a giant pile of cash at one’s disposal — exactly what Mike Easley negotiated as attorney general back in 2000. Easley left the money, the proceeds of a “voluntary” settlement with Smithfield Foods to address water quality concerns, as a re-gifting fund for Cooper when Mike took a helicopter ride over to the Governor’s Mansion and left the keys to the A.G.’s office to Roy.
The slush fund came back into the news recently when the Raleigh-based conservative group Civitas Center for Law and Freedom filed suit against Cooper, claiming the funds should have been going to the public schools all along. By law, civil penalties and forfeitures go to the state’s schools. But Cooper contends that he has discretion over the money, since the deal was voluntary.
The fund, which will eventually amount to $65 million, is doled out in about $2 million annual increments to a variety of organizations that range from state agencies to nonprofit groups. The nonprofits include both the center-left and the far-left, and Civitas claims that one recipient organization likely used grant money to fund political advertisements against Gov. Pat McCrory, Cooper’s opponent for governor.
One has to admire Cooper’s audacity. His spokesman claimed that “the money goes directly to researchers not the Attorney General’s office” while ignoring the news releases sent out over the years with headlines such as “AG COOPER ANNOUNCES $1.8 MILLION IN ENVIRONMENTAL GRANTS.” In case that’s not enough for you, Cooper’s press release makes it clear who made the decisions: “Cooper specifically sought to award grants….”
It doesn’t matter how the funds are routed; what matters is who picks the winners.
Regardless of the original settlement, the General Assembly should redirect the funds to the state’s schools and prevent the same from happening again. Slush funds always appear as — and usually are — vehicles for corruption.
Putting legal (and “voluntary”) settlement proceeds into a general pot also takes away the most powerful incentive to pressure companies into cash settlements. Equity and justice should be the stimuli for going after a private entity’s supposedly ill-gotten assets. But as it stands, the pure aims of an elected official often pale in comparison to the ability to reward one’s political allies with cold, hard cash.
As P.J. O’Rourke once wrote, “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
The next attorney general should vow to put down the keys of corruption and simply serve the people.