RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - The North Carolina State Ethics Commission has said a previous job cannot be considered a possible conflict of interest.
The Commission clarified its ruling amid questions from WBTV about conflicting decisions for two cabinet secretaries recently appointed by Governor Roy Cooper.
On Friday, the Commission issued an advisory letter clearing Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon of any conflicts of interest or possible conflicts of interest.
Trogdon spent most of his career as an engineer and senior executive with the North Carolina Department of Transportation before retiring in 2013. Upon retiring from NCDOT, he took a job as Vice President of Business Development, Mid-Atlantic for the engineering consulting firm Atkins.
Records made publicly available by NCDOT show Atkins has been awarded more than three dozen NCDOT contracts since 2012. Most recently, the company was awarded five contracts as prime consultant and two contracts as a sub-consultant for on-call engineering services at various NCDOT division offices throughout the state.
Atkins also worked on the I-77 toll lanes project. A post on its website highlights its work helping to design the conversion of the existing carpool lanes to toll lanes.
Trogdon left Atkins in May 2016 to take a job with SAS, another consulting firm that has won NCDOT contracts in the past.
Ethics Commission reverses opinion for other appointees
The Ethics Commission's conclusion that Trogdon was clear of any conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest contrasted with advisory letters issued for other recent cabinet nominees.
In January, a Commission attorney advised new Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan that his previous employment with the Environmental Defense Fund posted the potential for a conflict of interest.
"Mr. Regan has also disclosed that in 2016 he was employed as an Associate Vice-President/Director of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy non-profit," the Commission's advisory letter said. "Because of these associations, Mr. Regan should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his official duties should issues or entities related to his consulting practice, or the Environmental Defense Fund, come before Department for official action or otherwise seek to conduct business with the Department."
According to his statement of economic interest, Regan also ran a consulting firm in addition to working at the Environmental Defense Fund.
WBTV called Ethics Commission Executive Director Perry Newson to ask why Regan's previous employment with the Environmental Defense Fund would create the potential for a conflict of interest but Trogdon's previous employment with Atkins and SAS would not.
"The Regan letter is actually incorrect," Newson said.
According to Newson, the general statute covering conflicts of interest prohibits public officials, their family or business associates from deriving a financial benefit in connection with official action.
Severing financial ties with a company or previous employer is a way to prevent the possibility of a conflict of interest under the law as it is current written, Newson said.
"(The letter) is misleading and in error, to be quite honest with you," he said of his office's advisory opinion to Regan.
A review of other advisory opinions issued by the State Ethics Commission to Cooper's cabinet appointees found one other instance where the Commission appeared to say a previous job presented the possibility for a conflict of interest.
The advisory opinion for new Secretary of Commerce Andrew Copeland, who left his job as an attorney at the Williams Mullen law firm to take his new cabinet role, said Copeland's previous employment could create a conflict of interest.
"He should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should issues or entities related to his law practice of (his wife's employer) come before the Department for official action or otherwise seek to conduct business with the Department," the opinion said.
A spokesman for the Department of Commerce confirmed that Copeland no longer worked at Williams Mullen.
Trogdon takes steps to distance himself from private contract process
A spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Transportation said Trogdon no longer had financial ties to the private companies he worked for after leaving NCDOT. The department issued the following statement: