SHELBY, NC (WBTV) - Questions continue to surround the Cleveland County Board of Commissioners' decision to hire Tim Moore as their county attorney. Moore, a Republican from Shelby, is also Speaker of the North Carolina State House of Representatives.
On Your Side Investigates began digging into Moore's hiring as county attorney last August, after the outgoing county attorney, Bob Yelton, wrote an open letter criticizing the commissioners' decision to replace him with more and questioning the chain of events leading up to the decision.
Moore's contract with the county calls for him to be paid a $25,000 yearly retainer and bill at $250 per hour he spends working for the county.
Yelton, the attorney Moore replaced, billed at $220 per hour and had a yearly retainer of $23,760.
Text message shows Moore's interest in job
The Cleveland County Board of Commissioners formally voted to hire Moore in early July, following roughly a month of private discussion and negotiation between the board, Yelton and Moore.
A Raleigh News & Observer article from July 10, 2015 highlighted Moore's new job as the contract county attorney.
In an interview for the article, Moore made it seem as though the commissioners approached him about taking the county attorney job.
"The county was looking for an attorney, and they know that I've represented different government units over the years," Moore is quoted as saying in the article. But Yelton's article, penned in late July, he said he was assured he would remain as county attorney.
"In a July 10 article in the News & Observer, Speaker Moore was quoted as saying 'When I was approached about my interest…' Again, someone is not telling the truth," Yelton wrote.
Cleveland County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jason Falls, who is a distant relative of Moore's, doubled down on the notion that the board approached Moore in a follow-up article by the News & Observer on August 19, 2015.
"The commissioners reached out to Tim," Falls told the N&O. "He's well-known in our community. He's a known quantity. We felt that would be a good fit."
But a text message obtained by On Your Side Investigates between Moore and Cleveland County Commissioner Susan Allen shows Moore expressed interest in taking the county attorney job as far back as March 2015.
In the text message, Allen had sent Moore the official job posting for a newly-created assistant county attorney position. Moore responded by saying he was interested in the county attorney job.
"I would be interested in applying to be the attorney for the board if that opens," Moore wrote in response to Allen's text message.
We caught up with Moore at a recent commissioners' meeting to ask him about the seeming disparity between what he and Falls told the News & Observer and what is reflected in the text message.
"She sent me info about the job posting for the assistant county attorney and I said I'm not interested in that but I would be interested in the county attorney position," Moore told On Your Side Investigates.
"So it does make it look like you expressed some interest in being the county attorney?" an On Your Side Investigates reported asked. "After I talked to a few of them, I said, guys, if you want me, let me know," Moore responded.
Falls continued to claim commissioners first approached Moore about the county attorney job when contacted for a statement for this investigation, despite being told about the March 2015 text conversation between Moore and Allen.
"The Cleveland County Board of Commissioners approached Mr. Moore about serving as County Attorney. This is clear from the minutes of the June 2, 2015 closed session," Falls said. "It is important to note that individual commissioners have no authority to act on behalf of the Board unless the board member has been designated to act in such a capacity."
Moore's contract with Cleveland County requires him to attend all commissioners meetings as well as meetings of the Cleveland County Board of Health.
A review of minutes from both meetings since Moore's appointment shows he has attended eighty percent - or 12 out of 15 - of commissioners meetings but only one monthly Board of Health meeting.
The assistant county attorney acted on Moore's behalf at two of the three commissioners meetings he missed. An associate of Moore's, Justin Brackett, filled in for Moore at a third meeting.
Minutes from the Board of Health meetings Moore missed show that Katie Herndon, another associate at Moore's law firm, acted on his behalf.
Some meetings refer to Herndon as "county attorney associate" while others say she is representing Moore.
The county's contract with Moore is with him individually, not his law firm. There is no clause in the contract that contemplates the county paying for the legal services of his associates.
Despite that, in his interview with On Your Side Investigates, Moore claimed his contract with the county includes the associates at his law firm.
"(The contract) includes my law firm," Moore said. "When you hire me, it also includes the law firm."
Open Meetings Violation?
Moore was officially appointed county attorney by a vote of the county commissioners on July 7, 2015. But minutes from the boards closed session on June 2, 2015 show the decision to fire Yelton and hire Moore had been made in secret more than a month earlier.
Public minutes of the board's June 2, 2015 meeting show the board went into closed session to "discuss a personnel matter."
"Commissioners then went into closed session and discussed the assistant county attorney position, with respect to interviews, and to make the Board aware of intent to hire a candidate. No action was taken," the minutes read.
But the minutes of the closed session, which were obtained through a public records request, show commissioners discussed and agreed to take action on the county attorney position in addition to the assistant county attorney job.
"The board discussed offering the position to Tim Moore, reaching consensus to reach out to Mr. Moore with an offer," the closed session minutes say. "Commissioner Falls asked the Board how they wanted to handle the transition with Mr. Yelton and the following action was decided."
"ACTION: It was decided to talk to County Attorney Yelton two weeks after Mrs. Leslie-Fite accepted the (assistant county attorney) position and that it will be Commissioner Falls and Commissioner Hawkins that will meet with Mr. Yelton."
Attorney Jonathan Jones, who is a public records and open meetings expert as director of the North Carolina Sunshine Center, said the board's decision to fire Yelton behind closed doors likely violates the state's open meetings law.
"Anyone who reads that portion of the open meetings law that deal with closed sessions for personnel would understand that you cannot take action in closed session," Jones said.
Jones said the discrepancy between the open session minutes and closed session minutes regarding action taken is also troubling.
"Either the open session minutes are inaccurate, which is in and of itself problematic and a violation of the open meetings law, or an action was taken in closed session which should not have been done in closed session," Jones said.
But Moore said the board did not violate the law in how it handled the decision to fire Yelton and hire him.
"I haven't looked at the minutes, frankly," Moore said.
On Your Side Investigates sent Moore a copy of the relevant portion of the minutes from the June 2, 2015 meeting in our original request for comment prior to the commissioners' meeting.
Moore said the assistant county attorney checked with the UNC School of Government on whether the open meetings law was violated and, Moore said, the school said no laws were violated.
"You know, they followed the law from everything I've seen," he said.
During our interview, Moore said he would provide documentation of the communication between the assistant county attorney and the School of Government.
On Friday afternoon, less than two hours after this story was first posted online, the assistant county attorney, Andrea Leslie-Fite, provided On Your Side Investigates with communication between her and School of Government Professor Frayda Bluestein.
The email chain provided by Leslie-Fite, between her and Bluestein, shows Leslie-Fite only asked about the legality of the board's decision to hire Moore and fire Yelton in closed session.
"There was consensus about making an offer but there was also a need to have discussions about when the current attorney would transition out of that position which clearly was expected to happen in the future, but not a time certain," Bluestein wrote Fite. "Stated another way, the making of an offer is not the same thing as taking a final action."
But Leslie-Fite did not ask Bluestein about the discrepancy between the closed session minutes that show "action" and the open session minutes that say "no action taken."
Bluestein was also not asked to comment on the legality of commissioners considering the county attorney position when the minutes reflect the board only went into closed session to discuss the assistant county attorney position.
In a phone conversation Friday, Leslie-Fite confirmed to On Your Side Investigates she had not asked Bluestein about those possible violations of the open meetings law also uncovered in our investigation.
Jonathan Jones, the open government expert with the NC Sunshine Center, said the combination of questions points to a larger problem.
"The whole thing stinks from a good government point of view," Jones said.