State GOP blasts ‘thuggish behavior‘ after elections board chair asks for doctor‘s note for cancer patient

Raleigh, N.C. — A state inquiry into a key state senator‘s campaign finances has turned into a partisan spat as the senator‘s mother, who was also once his campaign treasurer, seeks treatment for cancer.

A Republican board member who has become embroiled in the conflict said Monday it has “been intimated” that he could be removed from the board as part of the back and forth. Gov. Roy Cooper‘s administration, which appoints the board, said that‘s not going to happen.

The campaign finance complaint against state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, has been pending since March 2017. The delay is partly because the legislature merged the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission, but the new board wasn‘t seated for months as lawsuits between Cooper and the Republican legislative majority rewrote the board‘s makeup and the governor‘s appointment authority.

State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Chairman Andy Penry pushed for a hearing this week to move the Hise inquiry forward ahead of the Nov. 6 elections. The senator‘s campaign asked for an extension and said his mother had been hospitalized as part of her cancer treatment. While she‘s no longer Hise‘s campaign treasurer, she was for years, including the time period at issue, the campaign said.

Penry responded to the request by questioning whether her testimony was really needed, whether others could provide the same information and whether she could simply call into the meeting. Penry also asked for “a verified statement from the treating physician that Ms. Hise is unable to participate” and “evidence that all forms of participation, including written statements, telephonic or web participation or depositions have been considered and are not possible.”

After this back and forth became public, Republican board member John Lewis forwarded an email to a reporter indicating that the board‘s staff had not completed its inquiry into the allegations against Hise, making Wednesday‘s planned hearing premature. The issue was pulled from the board‘s agenda over the weekend, and Penry said Monday he had not realized staff had that much more research to do.

The most serious allegation in the complaint is that Hise collected some $10,000 more in loan repayments than campaign documents indicate he actually loaned his campaign. The complaint was filed by Greg Flynn, a Democrat with a record as a campaign finance watchdog. Flynn has since been appointed to the Wake County Board of Elections.

On Monday, the state Republican Party put out statements from several cancer survivors, chastising Penry for his “thuggish behavior” and tying it back to Cooper, who appointed the longtime Democrat to the board. The party said the governor was “apparently targeting Republican (board) members for payback.”

Lewis said he wouldn‘t put it that way but said he was approached with concerns that he should not have forwarded information about an open investigation.

“I have not been told that I‘m going to be removed,” Lewis said, later adding, “It has been suggested that that is something they are considering.”

Lewis declined to say who told him this. Penry declined to discuss the matter. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said, “We are not trying to remove John Lewis.”

Board inquiries typically proceed in secret, and state Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse was circulating an explanation Monday detailing why Lewis forwarding the email didn‘t amount to a relinquishment of attorney-client privilege.

Penry said he doesn‘t regret the tone of his letter, though he did suggest that “maybe I was being too much of a lawyer.” The board is supposed to handle inquiries in a timely fashion, and when someone requests a continuance, “I want to trust you, but verify,” he said.

“All I really asked for was a doctor‘s note,” Penry said. “That‘s all I really wanted.”

Hise, who is in Raleigh for a special legislative session on Hurricane Florence relief, said his mother returned home two days ago after a 19-day stay in the hospital related to her ongoing cancer treatment.

Former state Rep. Carolyn Justice was one of several cancer survivors the state GOP quoted in a Monday release on the brouhaha.

“As a breast cancer survivor, it is outrageous that Gov. Cooper’s Democrat elections chief would pick on one of our elderly citizens struggling with cancer,” Justice said in the release. “I know well the struggles that come with that kind of fight. Demanding this poor lady prove she has cancer and suggesting she can take part in this hearing from her hospital bed is cruel and mean-spirited.”

Among other things, the party portrayed the episode Monday as evidence that a GOP-backed proposal to amend the state constitution, shifting board of elections appointment power from the governor to the legislature and essentially moving to a 4-4 split on the board between Republicans and Democrats, is needed.