RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Three officers with the North Carolina General Assembly Police stopped a WBTV reporter who was trying to ask questions of leaders with the North Carolina Emergency Management office following a hearing at the general assembly on Monday afternoon.
Investigative reporter Nick Ochsner was attempting to ask questions of Nick Burk, an assistant director of emergency management, about the slow pace of recovery assistance to residents impacted by Hurricane Matthew.
WBTV reported the week before that North Carolina had yet to spend any of a $236 million grant awarded in September 2017 by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to help residents whose homes were destroyed by the hurricane.
Leaders with NCEM refused to answers questions from WBTV over the course of a week prior to the story being published.
The North Carolina House of Representatives held a committee hearing on Monday afternoon to get an update from NCEM regarding recovery efforts.
Following the hearing, Ochsner tried to ask questions of Burk regarding the hurricane recovery efforts.
Both Burke and NCEM spokeswoman Julia Jarema refused to answer questions and, instead, said they would talk to any other reporter from WBTV.
As the attempted interview continued, a spokeswoman for NCEM - who had attempted to stand in front of Ochsner and block his ability to ask Burk questions throughout the interview - fell after she stepped on the back of a WBTV photographer's shoe. Ochsner stopped asking questions after that.
During the attempted interview, a NCGA police officer followed the group through the building and into a general assembly parking garage. After the attempted interview was finished, two more officers — for a total of three — surrounded Ochsner and his photographer to question them.
One officer said he began following the group after getting a report that someone was being harassed. He would not say how he got the report or who made the report.
Previous incident in March
Officials with the state's prison system told Ochsner the same thing last month when he tried to ask questions following a committee hearing regarding the ongoing safety problems inside North Carolina's jails. Five prison employees were killed on the job last year and at least 17 employees have been injured in attacks from inmates while on the job since mid-February 2018.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety—led by Secretary Erik Hooks—oversees both the prison system and NCEM.
This is the second time NCGAPD officers have attempted to intervene in an attempt to ask questions of DPS officials.
In March, when Ochsner tried to ask prison officials about ongoing safety problems, at least four NCGAPD officers responded to the hallway where the questioning took place but none of them approached Ochsner.
Despite that, WBTV submitted a request for the report of police activity and relevant radio traffic from the March response, all of which is a public record under the North Carolina Public Records Act. The request was submitted on March 15. The information has yet to be provided.
NCGAPD Chief Martin Brock has refused to release that information to the public, despite the fact that the information is public and, under the law, as chief, he is the custodian of the public records. The Act also requires information to be released "as promptly as possible."
Brock referred the request to Paul Coble, who is in charge of the Legislative Services Office.
Legislature refuses to release police records in a timely manner
In a phone call with WBTV, Coble accused the station of "trying to jump to the front of the line" to get a public records request fulfilled when a reporter pointed out the requirement of the law to release information as promptly as possible and said he was following the law.
Coble, Brock and the police department is overseen, on paper, by the North Carolina General Assembly Legislative Services Commission, which is chaired by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham).
The commission is made up of Republican and Democrat members from both chambers and is charged with overseeing the operations of the non-partisan staff at the general assembly, over whom Coble is in charge.
But one member of the commission, House Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake), said the group had yet to have a meeting in the time since he was appointed to the commission.
"I have been on the LSC for over a year now. It has never met," Jackson said. "To my recollection, I have never even gotten an email about it, a request for input, etc. As far as I can tell, the LSC is a sham. It never meets and yet it has tremendous authority."
But spokespeople for Berger and Moore released a joint statement praising the job Coble was doing in running his office and, more specifically, ensuring the legislative branch operated with transparency.
"We understand the Legislative Services Office has a standard policy it follows when responding to public records requests, and we are confident this policy fully complies with the law," the statement said. "We are also confident the Legislative Services Office provides public records on behalf of the state legislature in a more timely and complete fashion than most within the Executive and Judicial branches of government."