DOT scandal illustrates ethics problem in Raleigh

Published 12:44 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

By Staff
Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory appeared at a forum recently to discuss their proposals for ethics and government reform. A story in the News &Observer Sunday shows again why the issue is so important.
The report reveals that Board of Transportation member Louis Sewell, Jr. helped make sure that DOT spent $375,000 on road projects that appear to have helped property that he and his son own in Jacksonville.
Sewell apparently didn’t abstain from board votes on the projects or mention his financial stake in the properties helped by the road improvements. DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett called the episode “a bit unusual,” and is asking the State Ethics Commission to look into it.
The commission should investigate, but unfortunately there is nothing unusual about this case at all, especially at DOT. It has long been run by well-connected campaign donors and fundraisers and conflict-of-interest stories seem to surface every year.
Sewell reportedly was part of a group that raised $125,000 for Gov. Mike Easley’s campaign in 2000, which purchased Sewell his at-large seat on the board representing rural interests. But as the N &O reports, Sewell wants people to consider him instead the board member who represents Division Three, which covers Southeastern North Carolina.
But that division is represented on the board by Lanny Wilson, a developer who has contributed more than $175,000 to Democratic candidates in the last eight years and raised plenty more. Wilson wined and dined members of the 21st Century Transportation Committee at his Figure Eight Island home earlier this year.
There’s no way to know exactly how much Wilson or Sewell have raised for Easley or Perdue or other politicians. The Easley Administration simply decided that a 1998 law requiring DOT officials to disclose their political fundraising activities really didn’t require it.
Tippett said earlier this year that it’s not “his issue” if board members don’t report their fundraising because they don’t report to him. Of course, Tippett didn’t report his own political fundraising either. He must not report to himself.
Sewell was appointed as a Republican. The law requires that at least three members of the Board be from the opposite party of the Governor who appoints them. But the N&O reports that Sewell was unaffiliated when Easley named him to the board and then changed his registration to Republican.
That’s quite a record Sewell has there, buying his board seat with fundraising, misrepresenting his seat on the board, changing his political party registration, voting on projects that benefit himself and his son.
Sewell is reportedly now raising money for Perdue’s campaign and Lanny Wilson’s name has been mentioned as a possible DOT secretary in a Perdue Administration.
None of this has been lost on Republican Pat McCrory’s campaign. McCrory frequently uses DOT as an example of what’s wrong with Raleigh and it is hard to argue that point.
McCrory said at last week’s ethics forum that he would ban fundraisers from serving on the DOT board and other powerful commissions, a step in the right direction, but not enough. It would still allow big donors and fundraisers to designate a person for the governor to appoint.
That is the problem with many proposals to address the influence of big money in political campaigns. The wealthy and well-connected always manage to find a way around the laws designed to limit their influence.
McCrory also wants more frequent disclosure of contributions, but disclosure isn’t enough either. Perdue has a better handle on to how to clean up the DOT mess, despite her close ties to current DOT members and speculation that she might appoint fundraisers to key positions.
At the forum she mentioned setting up an independent fund to finance gubernatorial campaigns and also spoke out for public financing of council of state races.
Both could provide candidates clean money to run their campaigns so they don’t have to turn to Louis Sewell or Lanny Wilson and pay them back with a board seat or executive appointment.
McCrory keeps saying he is running against the “culture of corruption” in Raleigh and there’s plenty of examples to choose from. But just naming the problem isn’t enough and neither is only pledging more transparency to address it.
We already know how bad things are. The Louis Sewell saga is the latest reminder. Big political money currently comes with strings attached and until that changes conflicts of interest are bound to follow.