Generally, complaint investigations by the N.C. State Ethics Commission (Commission) are divided into one of two categories of potential violations:
- Ethics Law violations; and
- Lobbying Law violations.
Separate statutes govern the two types of complaints and require a very different process and even a different Complaint Form for each. If you believe that you have information that warrants filing a complaint with the Ethics Commission, please consider the following information to determine which type of complaint to file:
The purpose of the Ethics Act is to "ensure that elected and appointed State agency officials exercise their authority honestly and fairly, free from impropriety, threats, favoritism, and undue influence." G.S. 138A-2. The Commission is charged with educating public officials regarding their responsibilities under the Act and also with investigating potential violations and issuing sanctions when appropriate. The Commission does not have jurisdiction over all public officials or State employees. For example, local elected and appointed officials are not covered persons by virtue of their local positions. Ethics complaints must allege unethical conduct by one or more of the following individuals:
- a legislative employee;
- a covered person (a legislator, judge, justice, district attorney, or clerk of court); or
- a public servant (not all, but certain elected, appointed, or employed State officials. See G.S. 138A-3(30)).
The Commission may investigate the above individuals for alleged violations of:
- The State Government Ethics Act (G.S. Ch. 138A)
- The Legislative Ethics Act (G.S. Ch. 120, Art. 14)
- Criminal law by a covered person in the performance of that individual's official duties (G.S. 138A-12(b)(3))
- Laws governing promises or threats to obtain political contributions of support (G.S. 126-14)
For a more specific list of the types of actions prohibited under the ethics laws, see the Instructions for Filing an Ethics Complaint section.
The Lobbying Law regulates certain public officials as well as certain members of the private sector, namely lobbyists and lobbyist principals. See Chapter 120C. The Lobbying Law is designed to promote the goals of transparency and disclosure in the lobbying arena by preventing the concealment of 1) a lobbyist-principal relationship, and 2) the magnitude of lobbying resources expended to promote desired agendas. For example, lobbyists must register with the Secretary of State for each principal the lobbyist represents. Similarly, the lobbyist principal must file a form confirming or authorizing the lobbyist to represent the principal.
The Lobbying Law governs the actions of:
- lobbyists, (as defined in G.S. 120C-100(10));
- lobbyist principals, (as defined in G.S. 120C-100(11));
- liaison personnel (as defined in G.S. 120C-100(8)); and
- designated individuals (a legislator, legislative employee, or public servant).
The Commission and the Secretary of State (Secretary) both have jurisdiction under the Lobbying Law. The Secretary has exclusive administrative, investigative, and sanctioning authority in matters solely involving Articles 2, 4, or 8, which relate to the registration and reporting requirements for lobbyists and lobbyist principals. Thus, if a matter relates solely to an alleged reporting or registration violation, then the Commission must refer the matter to the Secretary for action. G.S. 120C-601(a).
The crux of the Commission's enforcement authority under the Lobbying Law involves the prohibitions and restrictions set out in Article 3 of Chapter 120C which prohibits:
- lobbyists from accepting contingency fees;
- attempts to influence a "designated individual's" campaign by providing financial support to the candidate or the candidate's opponent;
- gifts, given directly or indirectly, to certain designated individuals by lobbyists and lobbyist principals unless an exception applies;
- legislators, public servants and other State employees from registering as a lobbyist while in office or within six months of leaving their office or employment;
- lobbyists from being appointed by a State official to certain State Boards; and
- lobbyists from permitting certain designated individuals to use the cash or credit of the lobbyist.
G.S. 120C-300 to 305.
If a complaint involves both a potential reporting or registration violation, and a violation under Articles 1, 3, 5 or 7 of the Lobbying Law, the Commission will review the entire matter to determine whether an investigation is appropriate and proceed accordingly.
For further information regarding lobbying complaints, see the Instructions for filing a Lobbying Complaint section.
Complaints and the information obtained by the Commission in the course of an investigation are confidential under both the Ethics Act and the Lobbying Law.
However, under the Ethics Act, the individual against whom the complaint was filed may authorize the release of information regarding his or her complaint, and if the matter proceeds to a "hearing" for a public servant, the hearing would be open to the public.
Under the Lobbying Law, investigative information may only be released by court order. However, to the extent a referral is required to the Secretary of State's Office, the Commission may share investigative information with the Secretary.