RALEIGH — A Monday event in Whiteville honoring former state Sen. R.C. Soles, D-Columbus, has been canceled, Carolina Journal has learned. According to a man associated with the event who did not want to be identified, Soles decided Thursday to cancel the event awarding the Order of the Long Leaf Pine after Soles learned that CJ had been unable to find any record showing that former Gov. Bev Perdue approved the award. The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is the most prestigious award that can be conferred by the governor of North Carolina.
Soles, a Tabor City attorney, was North Carolina’s longest-tenured legislator, serving in the General Assembly from 1969-2011. He continued to be re-elected even though he has been involved in a number of controversies.
In 1983, he was indicted for conspiracy, vote buying, and bribery as a result of a federal corruption investigation, but was acquitted in a jury trial.
More recently he has been in the news for several run-ins with young men who were former legal clients. Some claimed they had sexual relations with Soles when they were teenagers.
In 2009, Soles shot a former client in the leg after a confrontation with the man in Soles’ front yard. In 2010, Soles pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and was fined $1,000. A State Bureau of Investigation inquiry into Soles’ relationships with teenagers, opened in 2009, has not produced any charges.
Wilmington television station WECT–TV reported Feb. 5 that Soles was scheduled to receive the award. CJ sought records confirming the honor. Crystal Feldman, spokeswoman for Gov. Pat McCrory, said McCrory’s office was unaware of the Soles award, so Perdue must have approved it.
Origin of Soles award unclear
Perdue approved approximately 250 Order of the Long Leaf Pine awards in December and January before leaving office Jan. 5. The records of those awards have been transferred to the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. An employee of that office examined the records and found none indicating Soles had been approved or even nominated for an award. A separate review of the records by a CJ reporter also failed to find any pertaining to Soles.
CJ spoke with Allison Stivender, a recently retired state employee who handled the processing of the awards for Perdue. Stivender said she was swamped with requests in the closing weeks of Perdue’s administration and that some of the information regarding requests may not have been saved properly.
Stivender remembered a request regarding Soles and believed it came in an email from Pryor Gibson, Perdue’s senior advisor for governmental affairs. She remembered printing a certificate with Soles’ name and believes she gave it to Gibson, a Wadesboro businessman who served eight terms in the General Assembly before resigning to work for Perdue. Stivender said she did not know if Perdue approved the award.
Gibson told CJ he remembered getting a request for Soles and that he forwarded the request to Stivender. “After that, I don’t know what happened,” he said. Nor did he know if Perdue approved the award for Soles. He added that he did not think he picked up the completed certificate from Stivender.
Efforts to reach Perdue were unsuccessful.
A May 2009 Raleigh News & Observer story noted that Gov. Terry Sanford created the award in the mid-1960s. Democratic Govs. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley gave out more than half of 13,600 awards that had been issued at the time.
The story said Democratic consultant Gary Pearce, who served as press secretary for Hunt in his first two terms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had written on his blog that there were “no criteria” and “no review process” for applicants to the order during his tenure.
“We pretty much gave the things to anybody who asked, as long as there was no indictment pending,” Pearce told the paper.
The N&O also reported that the day before he left office, Easley “quietly gave the award to Robert Lee Guy, the head of the state’s troubled probation department. A photo of Guy with the certificate appeared in a Clayton newspaper, but Perdue’s office could find no official record of the award.”
The story noted that Easley gave the award to his wife’s parents shortly before Christmas 2004. Governors “thought so little of the awards that they didn’t begin keeping track of who they’d given it to until 1983,” the story said.
In recent years, any state employee retiring with at least 30 years of service routinely has received the award.
Busy December for Perdue
The guidelines to submit an application for the award were posted on Perdue’s website, but are no longer available. The award is to “Recognize individuals for their contributions to the State of North Carolina. The goal is to honor individuals who have made a significant impact towards creating a better North Carolina,” the instructions stated. The guidelines contained a link to a form that could be completed online and emailed to a special address in the governor’s office.
Among the 250 people who recently received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine from Perdue include:
• Former state Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson
• All of Perdue’s Cabinet members
• Former N.C. Attorney General and Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten
• Actor Andy Griffith (posthumously)
• Gardner Payne, an attorney and former fundraiser for Perdue and Easley
• Sherwood Smith, former CEO of Carolina Power & Light
• Sixteen retiring members of the Shelby Police Department
• Dr. William K Atkinson, II, CEO of WakeMed Health & Hospitals
• Dennis Elwood Patterson, a former news reporter, with 12 years of state employment
• Michael L. Walden, a N.C. State University economics professor (and columnist for CJ)
Google search for something bad
After reviewing hundreds of awards, CJ was unable to determine the screening process used to decide who qualified. State employees retiring after 30 years of service appeared to qualify automatically. For at least one nominee, an Internet search was used.
In December, state Sen. Michael Walters, D-Robeson, requested an award on behalf of B. G. French of Robeson County. The request form has a section titled “Details of the nominee’s service and why the nominee is being honored:”
Walters wrote: “B. G. has contributed to the Robeson Co. community through his service to the Chamber of Commerce, Boy Scouts, Board of Realtors, Home Builders, Rotary Club and the Humane Society.”
A handwritten note by Stivender attached to the request read, “Pryor, I can find nothing bad in a Google search. He is very busy + engaged in the community, Allison.”
The note was written to Gibson, suggesting he had a role in the approval process.
In another section, asking the date to appear on the certificate, Walters entered Feb. 15, 2013. The date was crossed out and December 31, 2012 was handwritten next to it. On the request, Walters indicated he would present the certificate at a retirement dinner Feb. 15.
The dates of the awards were altered on several request forms, presumably to enter a date coinciding with Perdue’s term as governor.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.