Former top Democratic lawmaker asks NC Appeals Court to revive political discrimination case

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  • A former powerful N.C. House Rules Committee chairman urges the N.C. Court of Appeals to allow him to pursue a political discrimination claim against the state agency that fired him last year.
  • Bill Culpepper served as a top lieutenant to Democratic House Speaker Jim Black from 1999 to 2006. Culpepper later worked as general counsel at the state Office of Administrative Hearings.
  • Culpepper argues that OAH Director Donald van der Vaart fired him in June 2022 because of Culpepper's history of Democratic Party politics.

One of the most powerful N.C. lawmakers of the 2000s is asking the N.C. Appeals Court to allow him to pursue his political discrimination complaint against the state agency that fired him last year.

Bill Culpepper filed a brief Wednesday with the state’s second-highest court. It spells out his case against the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. OAH Director Donald van der Vaart fired Culpepper as OAH’s general counsel in June 2022.

Culpepper had served as a Democratic member of the N.C. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2006. That tenure included seven years as the powerful Rules Committee Chairman under House Speaker Jim Black. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley appointed Culpepper to the N.C. Utilities Commission in 2006. Culpepper served in that role until 2013. He joined OAH as general counsel in 2015.

Van der Vaart fired Culpepper from the post last year after redesignating the job as exempt from career status protections tied to the State Human Resources Act.

An administrative law judge ruled in December 2022 that Culpepper should have his career status restored. The judge also awarded Culpepper back pay and benefits. But the judge ruled in OAH’s favor on the political discrimination claims.

Culpepper spells out for Appeals Court judges why he should be allowed to proceed with his case. Culpepper is the “petitioner” in the case. OAH is the “respondent.”

“Respondent provides no evidence or contention of any deficiencies with or criticism of Culpepper’s work performance,” according to the brief. “In Culpepper’s OAH Job Performance Evaluations for the two most recent years before his separation, … Culpepper’s supervisor rated Culpepper ‘3-3 Exceeds Expectations’ on all of his Goals and Organizational Values. Throughout the time Culpepper was employed with OAH, Culpepper was never disciplined in any way, either by any Director/Chief ALJ or anyone else.”

The brief highlights Culpepper’s political history.

“As Chairman of the House Rules Committee, Culpepper was the top lieutenant of House Speaker James B. Black and controlled the flow of legislation in the House,” according to the brief. “As stated by Mark Johnson on July 5, 2005, in his Charlotte Observer newspaper article entitled Culpepper makes House play by rules, Culpepper was ‘one of the General Assembly’s most powerful members.’ Johnson further noted that ‘Lawmakers who want their legislation to survive avoid making him an enemy,’ because ‘He and Speaker Jim Black of Matthews determine whether bills live or die.’”

“As further stated by Johnson: To Democrats, he is Black’s fiercely loyal chief engineer, the man who makes the House machinery run, and can work its intricacies to his party’s advantage.”

Culpepper’s brief also notes Republican legislators’ assessment of him as “Black’s ruthless enforcer, who has a ‘heavy hand and does the dirty work that needs to be done.’”

The brief describes van der Vaart as a “registered Republican,” appointed by Republicans to leadership positions at the state Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Management Commission, and OAH.

Culpepper also references van der Vaart’s prior work with the John Locke Foundation, which oversees Carolina Journal. “Prior to receiving his appointment, Director van der Vaart served as senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, an organization heavily associated with North Carolina Republicans and partisan Republican Party politics.”

(The reference is incorrect. The John Locke Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit public policy organization. The foundation has no role in Republican Party politics.)

The brief asserts that van der Vaart played a role in securing a provision within the 2021 state budget. The provision allowed van der Vaart to designate five OAH employees as exempt from career status protections. Culpepper was one of four employees who had career status removed after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed the budget into law.

“Respondent does not contend that Culpepper held a policy-making position, or
that his political affiliation was in any way a requirement or otherwise related to his
position as General Counsel for Respondent,” according to the brief. “It is undisputed that Culpepper has a long record of service and activity as a Democrat in the North Carolina Legislature. It is also undisputed that Director van der Vaart is a Republican and actively involved in Republican politics.”

“Director van der Vaart admits that he knew of Culpepper’s political affiliation,” the brief continued. “The record makes clear that he also knew of Culpepper’s political activity and service to James B. Black, a well-known Democrat, while Black was Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. Director van der Vaart has been appointed by a Republican Governor and a Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice as the head of two separate State agencies.”

“Shortly after arriving at OAH, Director van der Vaart asked [Senior Administrative Law] Judge [Fred] Morrison ‘what is (Culpepper) doing here?’ and he later implicitly confirmed that the OAH Special Provision was designed to allow him to revoke Culpepper’s status as a Career State Employee,” Culpepper argued.

“The evidence, taken in the light most favorable to Culpepper, shows that
Respondent’s decision to revoke his protections under the SHRA was motivated by
Culpepper’s political affiliation with the Democratic Party and his record of service
in Democratic partisan politics,” Culpepper’s brief argued.

OAH will have a chance to respond to Culpepper’s arguments before a three-judge Appeals Court panel proceeds with the case.