Ex-elections chief did not try to force sick woman from bed

The News & Observer - - News - BY PAUL A. SPECHT as­[email protected]­sob­server.com Paul A. Specht: 919- 829- 4870, @AndySpecht

The Repub­li­can-led North Carolina leg­is­la­ture has been grap­pling with Demo­cratic Gov. Roy Cooper over the struc­ture of the state elections board.

Cooper threat­ened to veto the GOP’s pro­posal for re­struc­tur­ing the elections board and, in re­sponse, Repub­li­can state Sen­ate leader Phil Berger ac­cused Cooper of try­ing to weaponize the board’s “in­ves­ti­ga­tory power.”

Berger of­fered an ex­am­ple of how, he sug­gests, a Demo­cratic elections board mem­ber wrong­fully tried to in­flu­ence the board’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tor.

“Cooper’s now-dis­graced hand­picked chair­man, Andy Penry, tried to drag a can­cer­stricken woman out of her hospi­tal bed to tes­tify at her son’s hear­ing on the first day of early vot­ing over a bo­gus com­plaint that the Board hadn’t even fully in­ves­ti­gated,” Berger’s of­fice said in a press re­lease to me­dia out­lets on Dec. 19.

(Cooper fol­lowed through on his threat to veto the bill, and leg­is­la­tors later over­rode his veto.)

Berger’s state­ment ref­er­ences the case of state Sen. Ralph Hise, a Repub­li­can from Mitchell County, who ear­lier this year faced ques­tions from the N.C. State Board of Elections and Ethics En­force­ment over his cam­paign fi­nances.

The com­plaints were filed in 2017 and the elections board sched­uled a hear­ing for Oct. 17. A week prior to the hear­ing date, Hise sought to de­lay the hear­ing be­cause his mother — who acted as his cam­paign trea­surer — couldn’t tes­tify. Hise said she was in the hospi­tal bat­tling can­cer.

That’s where Penry’s com­ments come in to play. So let’s go through Berger’s state­ment, claim-by­claim.

DOC­TOR’S NOTE RE­QUESTED

Did Penry try to “drag a can­cer-stricken woman out of her hospi­tal bed to tes­tify at her son’s Board of Elections hear­ing?” No.

In an Oct. 5 let­ter to the board that WSOC posted on­line, Hise’s at­tor­ney Steven Long wrote that Hise’s cam­paign couldn’t “prop­erly” re­spond to ques­tions with­out Hise’s mother, Shirley. Long noted that Shirley Hise was the per­son re­spon­si­ble for cal­cu­lat­ing the se­na­tor’s mileage re­im­burse­ment pay­ments, “which are the cen­ter of the board’s in­quiry.”

But Shirley Hise, Long wrote, was un­able to walk while un­der­go­ing can­cer treat­ments at a hospi­tal in Asheville. He said more in­for­ma­tion about her health would be avail­able “in a cou­ple of weeks” and of­fered to pro­vide more de­tails if needed.

Penry, a Demo­crat ap­pointed to the elections board by Cooper, replied in an Oct. 8 let­ter that he’d re­lay Ralph Hise’s re­quest for a de­lay to the board. How­ever, Penry noted that state law re­quires that “mat­ters such as this be re­solved ex­pedi- tiously.”

Penry told Long to bring a doc­tor’s note con­firm­ing Shirley Hise’s con­di­tion along with in­for­ma­tion about when she’d be able to tes­tify. “You should be pre­pared to pro­ceed with all por­tions of your pre­sen­ta­tion other than the tes­ti­mony of Ms. Hise ... as chair, I am not in­clined to de­lay the en­tire mat­ter to an un­known date.”

In an in­ter­view with Poli­ti­Fact, Penry said the goal of his let­ter was to ver­ify Shirley Hise’s con­di­tion, find out if she could par­tic­i­pate through other means, and de­ter­mine whether Ralph Hise could pro­ceed with­out her.

“At no time did I de­mand that Mrs. Hise show up,” Penry told Poli­ti­Fact.

Con­tacted by Poli­ti­Fact, Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said Shirley Hise’s doc­tors were “forced” to sub­stan­ti­ate her con­di­tion. “That is tan­ta­mount to try­ing to drag her out of her hospi­tal bed to tes­tify,” Ryan said. Poli­ti­Fact dis­agrees.

HISE PAID SET­TLE­MENT

Next: was the com­plaint about Hise bo­gus? He cer­tainly didn’t get off scot-free.

In March 2017, Hise was ac­cused of il­le­gally tak­ing money from his cam­paign ac­count and vi­o­lat­ing laws re­quir­ing full dis­clo­sure of cam­paign con­trib­u­tors, the N&O re­ported in May 2017. The two com­plaints were filed by Greg Flynn of Raleigh, a Demo­crat who serves on the Wake County Board of Elections.

The com­plaints al­lege Hise: loaned his cam­paign about $50,000 but re­paid him­self $60,000, failed to re­port about $9,000 from nine po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees over a four-year pe­riod, and on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions failed to dis­close in­for­ma­tion about cam­paign con­trib­u­tors.

Hise reached a set­tle­ment with the elections board in Novem­ber. The set­tle­ment can be found on the elections board web­site.

In the deal an­nounced Nov. 27, Hise agreed to pay the board $4,000 to re­im­burse the cost of in­ves­ti­gat­ing the al­le­ga­tions and an­other $500 into a civil penalty and for­fei­ture fund, The News & Ob­server re­ported that day.

Ryan, Berger’s spokesman, said the word “bo­gus” was used be­cause the com­plaint was filed by a long-time Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive and used by Sen. Hise’s op­po­nent. The com­plaint, Ryan added, “was based on rel­a­tively com­mon cam­paign re­port mis­takes that any vol­un­teer trea­surer could make.”

But the fact that “mis­takes” were made and Hise was fined in­val­i­dates the ar­gu­ment that the com­plaints were mer­it­less.

LE­GAL LIMBO

What about the claim that the state elections board “hadn’t fully in­ves­ti­gated” the com­plaint for which it was sched­ul­ing a hear­ing? That ap­pears to be true.

That comes from an email from the NC elections board staff to John Lewis, a Repub­li­can mem­ber of the elections board. WBTV pub­lished ex­cerpts of the email in an Oct. 14 story.

“Staff does not con­sider the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to be com­plete. Three team mem­bers, in­clud­ing Di­rec­tor Strach, spent Wed­nes­day in Spruce Pine (Mitchell County) in­ter­view­ing two CPAs who worked with Ms. Hise on the cam­paign reports,” a staff at­tor­ney wrote to Lewis in re­sponse to his in­quiry, ac­cord­ing to WBTV. The email con­tin­ued: “Staff be­lieves that a con­tin­u­ance of the mat­ter would al­low for an or­derly con­clu­sion of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. There is no ev­i­dence that any wrong­do­ing is presently on­go­ing, so this is a historical in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Poli­ti­Fact doesn’t know whether it’s com­mon for the state elections board to sched­ule hear­ings be­fore it com­pletes cam­paign fi­nance in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Penry, for his part, told Poli­ti­Fact that he was un­aware the in­ves­ti­ga­tion wasn’t com­plete when he sched­uled the Oct. 17 hear­ing.

POLI­TI­FACT RUL­ING

Berger said Penry “tried to drag a can­cer-stricken woman out of her hospi­tal bed to tes­tify at her son’s hear­ing on the first day of early vot­ing over a bo­gus com­plaint that the Board hadn’t even fully in­ves­ti­gated.”

He ap­pears to have a point about the hear­ing be­ing sched­uled be­fore the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was com­plete. How­ever, Berger grossly ex­ag­ger­ates Penry’s re­quest of Hise’s mother (the “can­cer­stricken woman”) and down­plays Hise’s vi­o­la­tions. We rate this Mostly False.

This story was pro­duced by the North Carolina Fact-Check­ing Project, a part­ner­ship of McClatchy Caroli­nas, the Duke Uni­ver­sity Re­porters’ Lab and Poli­ti­Fact. The NC Lo­cal News Lab Fund and the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Jour­nal­ists pro­vide sup­port for the project, which shares fact-checks with news­rooms statewide.

Phil Berger

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