• 72°

New North Carolina campaign spending rule ends practice Berger used

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

North Carolina legislators can no longer spend campaign committee dollars toward buying or renting homes or condos that they or family members own – a practice that powerful state Senate leader Phil Berger used for years.

An administrative rule from the State Board of Elections that took effect this month bars such transactions for all state candidates or their campaign committees. The prohibition applies even if the residence is used as the result of holding office or if the payments are made to a business that the politician or officeholder owns.

And the Legislative Ethics Committee also quietly approved new guidance in May that makes it “unethical” for a lawmaker to receive a daily expense check to cover lodging expenses while serving in Raleigh if the lawmaker gets them covered through another source.

The guidance doesn’t mention Berger, currently the longest-serving senator in the chamber and elected Senate president pro tempore in 2011. Like most other legislators, Berger receives state-funded payments for room and board while serving.

The changes come months after retired campaign reform group leader Bob Hall first filed a complaint with the elections board questioning real estate activity by Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.

Transactions started in 2016, when Berger and his wife bought a townhouse in Raleigh, according to records. Berger’s campaign committee ultimately paid $1,500 a month to a limited liability company that Berger manages toward leasing the house.

At the time of Hall’s complaint last November, Berger’s campaign cited emails from the board’s previous executive director saying there was no prohibition on the practice. Those monthly payments to YPD Properties LLC continued when the Bergers bought a Raleigh condominum, then sold the house to a lobbyist in December.

Berger said earlier this year he was prepared to comply with whatever campaign finance or ethics rules were in place, spokesperson Pat Ryan said Tuesday. The latest Berger campaign finance report, filed in early July, showed no rental payment to the LLC for June.

“He has followed through on that commitment,” Ryan said in an email.

While pleased with the panels’ decisions, Hall said on Tuesday he had filed another legislative ethics complaint demanding Berger refund the taxpayer-funded per diem he received for housing while rent was paid with campaign dollars. Hall said taking the per diem, which he estimated exceeded $50,000, was “unethical double dipping.”

“I applaud public officials for finally taking action to stop Sen. Berger’s gross misuse of payments he’s received from taxpayers and political donors since mid-2016, but it’s important for him to at least repay taxpayers for his private use of public money,” Hall said in a news release.

On May 20, the bipartisan Legislative Ethics Committee approved the new guidance on legislators who accept the daily, tax-free $104 expense checks for lodging and food. The committee’s guidance also said that any legislator who “has inappropriately accepted” the per diem can repay those amounts to the legislature.

On the same date, the committee dismissed another ethics complaint Hall filed against Berger in February. This one alleged he misused his public position through the rental payments and that the profit off the sale price of the townhouse amounted to an illegal gift from a lobbyist.

The dismissal document said the sale was made in the normal course of business and that the elections board had not prevented the use of candidate committee funds for residential real estate for the period being reviewed.

With Tuesday’s complaint, Ryan wrote, Hall is “using the exact same facts to accuse Sen. Berger of a violation which the Legislative Ethics Committee already dismissed months ago.” When asked if Berger would return per diem money, Ryan replied: “It is not reasonable to expect somebody following the rules for years to take retroactive action whenever there’s a change in rules.”

Hall petitioned the Board of Elections, composed of three Democrats and two Republicans, to create the new rule about residential property. After a public comment period, the final rule was approved last month by the Rules Review Commission.

READ ABOUT MORE NEWS AND EVENTS HERE.

RECENT HEADLINES:

Second COVID-19 related death reported in Tyrrell County

Jeffrey Ackerman sworn in as Duck’s new police chief

News

Duck begins search for new town manager

Lifestyles

Milltail Road reopens on Alligator River Refuge

Business

John Harris of Kitty Hawk Kites honored for contributions to tourism in North Carolina

News

Moratorium on offshore drilling reportedly coming for North Carolina

Lifestyles

Film production resumes in North Carolina

News

Trump taps Barrett for Supreme Court

Lifestyles

Recognized for 20 years of service at Town of Manteo

Hyde

COVID-19 testing event set in Fairfield

Crime

Victim in Camden County shooting in coma

News

Lost woman found at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Buxton

News

Additional COVID-19 related deaths reported in Currituck and Tyrrell

Currituck

Moyock development vote fails to get approval from Currituck Board of Commissioners

News

State graduation rate continues to climb, local administrators weigh in

News

Feds want to relax protections for woodpecker endangered since 1970

News

Three North Carolina death row inmates to serve life in prison

News

GOP elections board members in NC resign over absentee deal

News

Capital projects for Dare County water system approved

News

Dare occupancy collections set a record for July

News

Manteo annexes vacant lot

News

Belted kingfishers prefer to be near water

Lifestyles

Jennette’s Pier staff members pick peers for excellence awards

News

North Carolina Coastal Federation receives marine debris removal grant from NOAA

Lifestyles

First responders traverse ocean overwash on NC 12 to get child to hospital

News

Sections of NC 12 on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to reopen Thursday at noon