BY DAN KANE
With two suspensions for inappropriate contact with a student, Jessica Wishnask quietly left the New Hanover school district two years ago to go work for another. She did not have to disclose her misconduct, and her prior employer did not report the suspensions.
Her new employer, Pitt County schools, did not find out about them until months later, when Wishnask got caught having sex with the same student and was sent to prison.
North Carolina's personnel law has helped hide suspensions such as those served by Wishnask for more than three decades. But that will change Oct. 1, thanks to a series of reforms Gov. Bev Perdue signed into law Monday that make public the suspensions and demotions of state and local employees.
"The folks in this state have every right to expect and deserve integrity and honest services from their public servants," Perdue said.
The new ethics law also creates tougher penalties for those who violate campaign contribution limits, it forces all state employees to wait six months after their public service before they can lobby their former agencies, and it funds databases to help the public link campaign money to those who have government contracts. And government agencies that deny access to public records are more likely to find themselves paying the entire cost of the ensuing legal battle.
"This is a red-letter day for North Carolinians who want public records and don't want to go broke having to fight for them," said Beth Grace, executive director of the N.C. Press Association, of which The News & Observer is a member.
The new law joins several others passed since 2005 to increase accountability in government. Much of the legislation follows the investigation that brought down former House Speaker Jim Black and a continuing probe into the perks former Gov. Mike Easley and his family received during his eight years in office. Lawmakers from both parties overwhelmingly supported the law.
Hoping for more
Good government advocates say the law is an important step forward, but they had hoped lawmakers and Perdue would do more. Many of the dropped provisions would have directly affected lawmakers and other elected officials, such as one that would make them personally liable for campaign finance penalties.
The N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, for example, sought a provision that would limit the amount of money government contractors and those seeking government business could give in the form of campaign contributions. Jane Pinsky, the coalition's director, said 12 states have such a law. But North Carolina lawmakers balked, saying they feared they were creating an unequal playing field between those who had government business and those who might later be seeking it.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a campaign finance watchdog, was disappointed that provisions to increase the number of publicly financed campaigns didn't get through the legislature. But he praised provisions that require political appointees to many of the state's most powerful boards to disclose fundraising, and that make it a felony to give more than $10,000 to a candidate in an election.
"There are a lot of important features in the bill, quite a number around disclosure," Hall said. "But there's more that can be done, and no doubt continuing work will be needed to keep us moving forward."
A perennial problem
Perdue signed the ethics bill at the state Capitol with several lawmakers in attendance, including House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, and House Minority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. While Hackney spoke to the continuing efforts the Democratic-led legislature has made in recent years to increase accountability, Stam noted that bad behavior by Democratic leaders had led up to Monday's bill signing.
"We do have a problem with ethics in government at all levels - local, state and federal," Stam said. "This bill will go a long way to assist in that. No bill, though, no piece of paper will stop everyone from doing bad things. Therefore we have to have enforcement, and we have to have vigorous transparency."
Stam and another lawmaker at the signing, Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, had sought to limit transparency in personnel matters. Ross pushed an amendment through the House that would have provided less information about disciplinary matters, making them public only if an employee had been convicted of a crime. But that language was dropped from the final version.
N.C. law secretive
A three-part News & Observer series, "Keeping Secrets," reported that North Carolina has had one of the most secretive personnel laws in the nation. No other state, for example, had limited public information to just an employee's current salary. Many states make more information about disciplinary actions public.
North Carolina's new law makes public pay and employment histories and dismissal letters that explain an employee's firing. It also requires the disclosure of all suspensions or demotions but doesn't require an explanation for those actions.
Charles Davis, a former executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, called North Carolina's personnel law changes "hugely important." He also praised lawmakers for making it easier for those who win public records battles against government agencies to collect legal fees. Currently, judges have the discretion to award legal fees, but they have done so only on rare occasions.
"Legal fees are probably the biggest lever we have out there," he said.
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