The North Carolina Senate approved a bill Thursday to increase government transparency and the penalty for corruption.
Senate Bill 473 creates a new felony offense for public officials who personally benefit financially from their position. It requires local governments to garnish a public official’s wages if the official owes money for unpaid county and city services.
The measure also strengthens conflict-of-interest laws, and it allows the Local Government Commission (LGC) to select an independent auditor in certain circumstances.
“I can confidently say that most of our local leaders are honest, hard-working public servants,” said Sen. Lisa Barnes, R-Johnston, who introduced the bill. “It’s very alarming, however, when local elected officials receive special treatment because of their likely position, or they fail to follow proper procedures and established policies, and this often results in waste of taxpayer resources and also [erodes] the public’s trust.”
A May 2020 report by the state auditor revealed Rocky Mount city officials blocked the city from collecting more than $47,700 in utility bills owed by a city council member. The city manager violated the city’s travel policy, resulting in more than $1,500 in unapproved travel expenses. The audit also found mismanagement and overspending in the city’s programs, costing taxpayers more than $60,000.
The bill requires the state auditor to notify the LGC when an audit report results from an investigation involving local governments. It allows the LGC to be involved in that local government’s audit process for up to three years after the release of an investigative report.
SB 473 would create a Class H felony for an elected official “that solicits or receives personal financial gain from the political subdivision for which he or she serves by means of intimidation, undue influence, or misuse of the employees of that subdivision.”
An elected official convicted under the measure could face four to 25 months in prison.
The bill also clarifies that public officials, employees or their spouses with leadership roles in nonprofit organizations cannot be involved in the approval process of a contract for the organization and must recuse themselves from the vote.
Sen. Milton Fitch Jr., D-Wilson, spoke in opposition of the bill. He took issue with the legislation resulting from the Rocky Mount audit. Fitch reminded the Senate the audit did not result in criminal charges. He believes Barnes, whose district, like his, includes Rocky Mount, filed the legislation because she was dissatisfied with the audit’s outcome, he said.
“All of us expect our elected officials to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. I’m not gonna bore you with what alleged to have occurred,” Fitch said. “But it just seems like what is happening in this particular bill is somebody did not like the results of the audit report by the state auditor.”
The Senate approved SB 473, 42-6, on Thursday. It now heads to the House for consideration.