CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The war of words between Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and his Democratic Challenger, Deborah Ross, has headed up over accusations from Burr that Ross opposed the creation of North Carolina's sex offender registry.
Ross, in turn, has accused Burr of lying and has pointed to a series of 18 votes she claims to have made during her time as a state representative in support of legislation she said strengthened or updated the sex offender registry.
This week's fact check explores the claims made by Burr about Ross' stance on the registry as well as the claims Ross has made in defending herself.
Burr's claim: "Deborah Ross opposed the North Carolina sex offender registry"
An ad released by the Burr campaign entitled 'Kelly' claims that "ACLU lawyer Deborah Ross opposed North Carolina's sex offender registry, warning of the repercussions to sex offenders and worrying about their right to privacy."
To support the ad's claim, the Burr campaign points to a memo Ross wrote as the executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1995 summarizing legislation passed during the recently-concluded legislation session.
Specifically, Ross wrote that the memo highlights "key bills we lobbied on."
One of the last bills highlighted in the memo is SB53, which created the state's sex offender registry.
"This bill requires sex offenders, who have already served their time, to register with local authorities whenever they move to a new location," Ross wrote. "Any member of the public would have access to the sex offender list, complete with address. Despite the fact that this bill would make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society and start over and could lead to vigilantism, it passed both houses and is now law."
A spokeswoman for Ross' campaign refused to answer a question posed by On Your Side Investigates asking if Ross lobbied for or against SB53, saying only that she voiced concern. Follow-up questions about whether Ross voiced her concerns to lawmakers about the language in the final version of SB53 that was passed in her role as a lobbyist also went unanswered.
The bill's primary sponsor was then-State Senator Fountain Odom (D-Mecklenburg).
Odom sponsored a second bill in 1997 that made changes to the sex offender registry and also called for the database to be published online. That legislation also passed and the online sex offender database was launched in 1998.
In an article highlighting the launch of the online sex offender registry published in the Raleigh News & Observer in April 1998, Ross was again critical of the impact the registry could have on sex offenders.
"It's going to be interesting to see if citizens act responsibly with the information, and what are the repercussions going to be for the sex offenders and their families," Ross is quoted as saying.
Later in the article, Ross is quoted raising additional questions about the impact the online sex offender registry would have on victims who are related to the sex offender.
"The real concern is about people who have committed sex offenses within their families and what (public notification) will do to their families," Ross is quoted as saying.
But that point, one that the Ross campaign says was the basis for Ross' original concern with the sex offender registry, is not mentioned in her 1995 ACLU memo about the bill that first established the registry.
Ross' campaign refused multiple requests from On Your Side Investigates to make Ross available for an on-camera interview, so we were unable to ask her questions about her position on the creation of the sex offender registry.
But Ross did address Burr's accusation in response to a question from ABC News' Jonathan Karl during a debate Thursday night.
"When this bill was being considered, like a good lobbyist, lawyer, legislator, you have to look at the implications of the bill," Ross said. "Ultimately, the bill is working, the law is working. Like I said, I voted 18 times to strengthen and update it and raising issues isn't the same thing as opposing a bill."
Both the 1995 ACLU legislative memo and Ross' comments in the 1998 article present a consistent message from Ross that cast doubt on the efficacy of a sex offender registry. The opening line of her 1995 memo indicates that she was involved in lobbying against the original legislation that created the sex offender registry.
For those reasons, we rate Burr's claim as true.
Ross' defense: Burr is lying; voted 18 times to strengthen sex offender registry
Ross has responded to Burr's attacks about her opposition to the creation of a sex offender registry with a number of TV ads and editorial pieces featuring surrogates who question the veracity of Burr's claim.
The most notable ad features Odom, the state senator who authored both the 1995 and 1997 bills, saying Ross supported his law.
"I told my friend Deborah to ignore those false attack ads," Odom said in the ad. "Senator Burr is flat out lying and that's why people hate politics. Deborah not only supports the sex offender registry, she worked to make it strong."
Small text at the bottom of the screen during the ad references Odom's 1997 bill. Likewise, Odom's editorial defending Ross and highlighting her support of the sex offender registry published in The Charlotte Observer refers to the 1997 bill.
"In 1997, I authored a bill to create a public registry of sex offenders in North Carolina. At the time, the internet was hardly in the mainstream so the prospect of an online registry raised questions about how we could best protect the privacy of victims. Deborah Ross showed leadership, asked tough questions and worked with me to make my bill and our state's sex offender registry better," Odom wrote in the op-ed.
Neither Odom's editorial nor the commercial in which he is featured references the original 1995 bill that created the sex offender registry, which is the basis for Burr's claim.
But the TV ad in which Odom is featured does mention Ross' work to strengthen the sex offender registry, referring to the 18 votes her campaign says she took as a member of the legislature in support of bills that would strengthen and update the registry.
A review of the details surrounding each of the 18 votes Ross' campaign cites in backing up her claim raise more questions.
The first bill highlighted by Ross' campaign is 2008 legislation called the Jessica Lunsford Act, which imposed stricter penalties on sex offenders, among other things.
"Deborah voted for the Jessica Lunsford Act, which imposed stricter penalties on sex offenders, including making the minimum prison sentence for adults who committed sex crimes against children 25 years," a campaign spokesman said in an email to On Your Side Investigates. "The Jessica Lunsford Act was praised by now-Speaker Republican Tim Moore as 'among the toughest bills' in the United States."
But a review of the voting history for the bill reveals Ross abstained from voting on whether to pass the bill and send it to be considered in the Senate.
Members of the North Carolina House of Representatives voted on the Jessica Lunsford Act for North Carolina on July 31, 2007. Legislative voting records show Ross as one of four members not voting. Two other members are listed as having an excused absence.
Records show that Ross did vote to approve a compromise version of the bill a year later that resulted from negotiations between the House and Senate.
Additional review of two other votes Ross took that her campaign claims to have strengthened and updated the sex offender registry also raises questions.
Ross' campaign claims she voted for SB613 in August 2007, which, the campaign says, updated the sex offender notification requirement for out-of-county employment.
It's true that Ross voted to update that requirement but not in SB613; that requirement was actually updated in HB1896, which was passed a year earlier and is listed by Ross' campaign as another of the 18 votes they say she took to strengthen and update the sex offender registry.
Instead, SB613 is a technical corrections bill that includes a provision to delete a comma and the word 'including' that were accidentally left in an updated portion of the statute. Nothing in SB613 actually strengthened or updated the sex offender registry.
Similarly, we found no provision in HB736—which Ross voted for in June 2011—that strengthened or updated the sex offender registry. The legislation does update a section of the law surrounding the sex offender registry by changing a reference to a related section of the statute. The registry wasn't substantially changed as a result of the updated reference.
We did not have an opportunity to ask Ross about the questions raised in our review of her defense because her campaign refused multiple requests to make her available for an on-camera interview.
Because of Odom's reference to only the 1997 bill in his defense of Ross and because of the multiple questions raised by the series of votes cited by Ross' campaign, we rate the claims made by Ross in response to the attacks from Burr as false.