Elections chairman ordered hearing on candidate complaint before investigation complete

Hearing delayed after questions from WBTV
The NC State Board of Elections meets in 2016
The NC State Board of Elections meets in 2016(Corey Schmidt)
Updated: Oct. 15, 2018 at 12:22 AM EDT
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RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) – The North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has postponed a hearing into a complaint regarding North Carolina Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) following questions from WBTV.

The board was scheduled to consider the case of alleged campaign finance violation against Hise at its hearing this week, despite the fact that the agency’s staff has said its investigation was not finished.

Hise has been under investigation by the agency since March 2017, when Greg Flynn, a government watchdog in Raleigh, filed complaints with the NCSBE alleging the senator pocketed roughly $10,000 from his campaign account.

Earlier this month, the board announced it would consider the complaint against Hise at its meeting on Wednesday, October 17.

Days later, an attorney for Hise requested the hearing be postponed because Hise’s mother—Shirley Hise, who served as his campaign treasurer during the period of time under investigation by the board—is hospitalized and undergoing treatment for cancer.

“This past Tuesday, Ms. Hise was admitted to Mission Hospital—St. Joseph Campus in Asheville due to complications from her cancer treatments,” the letter from Hise’s attorney, Steven Long, said. “She is not able to walk and currently has serious health issues that will not allow her to come to Raleigh on October 17 to appear at the hearing.”

The letter said Shirley Hise’s testimony was key to the senator making a “full and fair presentation to the Board.”

In response, NCSBE Chairman Andy Penry, a Democrat, wrote a letter saying he would place the request for delay on the agenda for the board to consider before Hise’s hearing but that the senator should be prepared to present his case.

“As Chair, I am not inclined to delay the entire matter to an unknown date,” Penry wrote, noting that the case had been pending for well more than a year.

But documents obtained by WBTV show the NCSBE’s investigation into Hise’s campaign is not yet finished.

According to an email from board staff to John Lewis, a Republican member of the State Board of Elections, NCSBE staff were conducting interviews for the case as recently as this past week.

“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.

“Those interviews for the first time suggested the existence of QuickBooks files that we are now obtaining, and a different explanation for part of the loan balance (owed to Sen. Hise) that the Committee carried during the relevant time period,” the email said. “We need to follow up on this new information.”

The email said the Hise matter had been added to the board’s October agenda at the direction of Penry, the NCSBE chairman, and said the staff supported delaying the hearing.

“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,” the email said.

In response to questions from WBTV regarding the scheduling of Hise’s case to be heard, Penry said he was unaware that the investigation was not yet complete.

“I was told, probably sometime last week, that they still had a couple of more interviews to do but they anticipated completing those interviews before the hearing,” Penry said. “Nobody said to me that ‘we have more interviews to do, we’re not going to be ready and, therefore, we cannot have the hearing.’”

Penry said he wanted to hear the Hise case, along with several other outstanding cases, at the October meeting because of the length of time it had been pending.

“I’ve got no motivation to have a hearing for a time before staff is ready to present,” Penry said, adding he was waiting to hear back from NCSBE staff about whether the investigation was complete.

Penry later followed up with WBTV to say the Hise hearing would likely be postponed.

“We will likely move the Hise case from 10/17 to a later date in order to be sure our staff is fully prepared to present the matter,” Penry said.

NCSBE General Counsel Josh Lawson sent an amended hearing notice later Sunday afternoon that did not include the Hise matter.

Lewis, the Republican board member who sent an email of questions regarding the Hise case to NCSBE staff on Friday, questioned the timing of the hearing in Hise’s case in an interview with WBTV on Sunday.

Specifically, Lewis noted that the hearing for Hise, who is up for re-election on November’s ballot, would take place on the first day of early voting.

“It made me wonder why it was put on the agenda in the first place,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a great staff. If it had been ready for a hearing, I’m sure it would have been staff’s recommendation to place it on the agenda.”

Penry, the board chairman, defended his decision to place the Hise hearing on the October meeting agenda.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily improper to have a hearing prior to the election,” he said.

Penry noted that he had originally requested the matter be placed on the September agenda to be considered but was told by staff the matter was not yet complete.

“There’s nothing nefarious about it, I hope you understand,” Penry said.

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