After weeks of ducking constitutionally mandated Senate confirmation hearings, a contrite Larry Hall appeared under subpoena before the Commerce and Insurance Committee on Thursday, answered questions at length, and was approved unanimously for recommendation to the full Senate for confirmation as secretary of military and veterans affairs.
“Sometimes you make history, but not intentionally. I did not intend to be part of history,” Hall, clad in a cherry red Marine Corps League blazer, said after the vote on the first of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet secretaries to have confirmation hearings after passage of a law in December requiring a path many states follow.
The process had been snarled in rancor between Democratic and Republican committee members, frustration with Hall for refusing to appear, and a lawsuit filed by Cooper attempting to prevent his Cabinet appointees from testifying. Some said the standoff had created a constitutional crisis over separation of powers.
In the end, Hall was subpoenaed, showed up for the fourth scheduled hearing, and won over the committee.
“I certainly understand the dispute that’s going on, or the contest, and again, both branches being viable and exercising their rights should be viewed as a good thing as we keep our democracy strong,” Hall said of the separation of powers issue after the hearing.
“I really didn’t feel I was twisting in the wind” between the governor’s position that a confirmation hearing was unlawful, and the Senate’s insistence he appear, Hall said.
“I was trying to study and follow every court decision, and read what was going on with the proceedings,” he said. “Everyone at the end of the day is going to have to abide, I believe, by a court order.” Cooper’s lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in court next week.
“It was ridiculous that we had to go through this process just to get somebody to come here to participate in their own confirmation process,” Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said after the hearing.
“I hope that we would see the matter is cleared up now, and [Cooper’s] other Cabinet secretaries that are interested will show up” on schedule, Hise said, warning, “I think that our tolerance for them will not be what our tolerance was” for Hall.
Hall was sworn-in under oath, and gave an opening statement about his service in the Marines, his family’s military history, his father’s being “my role model and my hero” as an Army Airborne soldier, and other biographical information. A court reporter took down testimony.
During questioning by Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, about what he would bring to the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Hall said every veteran “has had a contract with our country” that must be fulfilled by providing them with all services to which they are entitled, but may not be aware.
He said he wants to help homeless veterans, those without insurance, veterans needing mental health counseling, and those trying to start or improve businesses. He said North Carolina has 87,000 veteran-owned businesses “and we’re going to try to more than double that number over the next four years.”
Hall told Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, retaining military bases is a top priority. Making sure they have the road and utility improvements to serve both their needs and the community is vital.
Hise, seated just feet away from the table where Hall was sitting, surrounded by military veterans, many wearing hats and other regalia, was among those asking the most pointed questions during the hearing.
He wanted to know if Hall was the nominee for the secretary post and whether he was now serving in that capacity. Cooper has contended he hasn’t nominated any Cabinet members yet.
“I haven’t seen any document that says I am being put forward for confirmation, but I hope that document comes before May 15,” Hall said. That is the ordinary deadline for Cooper to submit nominations to the Senate. Republican senators say that provision does not apply because Hall was named to a vacancy appointment while the General Assembly was not in session, so they can hold confirmation hearings without Cooper’s notice.
Hall confirmed he began serving while the General Assembly was not in session, was fulfilling duties of the job, and lamented that “I don’t prefer to be a pawn in the process.”
He said he skipped past hearings because his legal understanding of the court case didn’t require his attendance. He came to Thursday’s hearing because of the subpoena, and, as a lawyer and officer of the court, not wanting to be held in contempt.
“I was not directed or advised not to attend nor to attend this meeting” by the governor or his staff, Hall said.
Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, asked Hall’s opinion about massive wind farms threatening radar operations and national security at military bases in North Carolina and Virginia, particularly the Amazon Wind Farm near Elizabeth City that prompted a letter from General Assembly leaders to the federal government.
“Yes, I think we need to be vigilant on not just that wind farm but anything else that would affect the operation of these bases,” Hall said. Modifications have been made, he said, data is being generated, and that will be used to determine whether the wind farms should expand and tower heights raised.
Cook asked Hall about a Military Affairs Commission executive committee meeting at which a presentation about military issues including the Amazon Wind Farm was to be presented. He wanted to know if the meeting violated state open meetings law, and whether Hall intended to follow those laws in the future.
Hall had objected to a Carolina Journal reporter attending the meeting. Commission Chairman Mabry “Bud” Martin pulled the item from the agenda for a future date, but allowed it to be put back on the agenda when the reporter and members of the public who were there for that one item left.
Hall admitted the meeting was not legally advertised, and that was a primary reason for wanting to delay the presentation because no action at the meeting would be valid due to the lack of notice. Holding the meeting later as an advertised session would make action binding, and enable more people to be invited, he said.
But no discussion about legal notices occurred during that meeting. A CJ investigation discovered that violation, which Military Affairs Commission members did not confirm until days afterward.
Hall said as a result of that meeting the agency has tightened its legal notice policy and put its future meeting schedule on both its website and the Secretary of State’s website.