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Column: Legislators should tell us who’s paying them

by Colin Campbell

RALEIGH – Serving as speaker of the House has been good for Tim Moore’s bank account.

The job of speaker isn’t itself lucrative: $38,151 annually, plus $104 a day for housing and food when the legislature is in session. That’s a decent income for many North Carolinians, but it’s not going to buy you that sports car you’ve been eyeing.

So Moore –  like a lot of his colleagues in what’s still considered a part-time legislature – keeps his original job. He’s a small-town lawyer who handles a wide variety of legal matters out of a cottage-turned-office in downtown Kings Mountain.

The firm might look modest, but Moore’s legal services are in high demand. A few months after he was elected speaker, the Cleveland County commissioners decided to ditch their longtime attorney and hire Moore to advise them.

While some local governments pay lobbyists to represent them in Raleigh, Moore’s home county decided it would be smarter to pay one of the most powerful people in the state to attend every commission meeting. Moore also serves as attorney for his county’s public utility.

Moore’s legal client base extends far outside Cleveland County. The North Carolina Bail Agents Association paid him $10,000 for work involving the N.C. Department of Insurance in 2012. Later that year – after Moore was no longer on the group’s payroll – the legislature passed a law that gave the association a monopoly in providing required bail bond training. Moore recused himself from the vote, but anonymous allegations that claim he was involved behind the scenes have drawn the interest of the FBI.

Moore also did legal work for Durham businessman Neal Hunter, a few years after Moore sponsored legislation that intervened on Hunter’s behalf in a dispute with Durham officials over a new development project, The News & Observer reported.

Moore’s work for the businessman and the bail association prompted a review from Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who announced last month that she’d “found no misuse of public office for private gain or other wrongdoing as to these payments.”

Moore’s actions appear to be perfectly legal, according to Freeman. But it’s still likely some of Moore’s clients are hiring him because of his political power instead of his legal prowess. And while Moore may be following ethics rules and keeping legal work separate from legislative work, the current system is easy to abuse.

The legislature is chock full of lawyers, and none of them are required to publicly disclose who’s paying them for legal work. It’s inevitable that at some point, some lawmaker will take a check for legal services and then sponsor a bill on that client’s behalf. And it’s possible that the public will never know about it.

There’s an easy solution to this: Elected officials should be required to list all legal clients on their ethics forms. They’re already required to list their business interests, major investments and real-estate holdings, so legal work should be no exception.

Lawyers, of course, will claim that such a rule would violate attorney-client privilege. That problem would be easily solved by having elected officials’ legal clients sign a form agreeing to the public disclosure.

Or we could go a step further – make serving in the House and Senate a full-time job with full-time pay, and ban legislators from taking on outside employment while in office.

Taxpayers would spend more on legislative salaries, but they’d know that their representatives are working exclusively for them. We’d have fewer political scandals and greater confidence in government.

And House Speaker Tim Moore wouldn’t have to worry about answering questions from the FBI, or making sure the legislative session is over in time to attend a county commission meeting three hours away.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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