News: CJ Exclusives

Lobbyist Calls Legislator “Nutcase”

Former aide to Speaker Black reacts to call for audit of partnership

An administrator for a taxpayer-supported association characterized Rep. John Rhodes, who has asked State Auditor Ralph Campbell to investigate a state-funded economic development agency, as a “true nutcase” whose only allies “are the very religious right folks.”

Meredith Norris, a former assistant in House Speaker Jim Black’s legislative office, now is a registered lobbyist for the North Carolina Partnership for Economic Development, an association for the state’s seven regional economic development partnerships. She handles various other responsibilities for the NCPED, although her degree of authority over the organization is not clear.

Norris made her “nutcase” comment in an electronic mail exchange between her and Rick Watson, president of North Carolina’s Northeast Partnership, and Cathy Scott, who consults for Watson. Rhodes, a Mecklenburg County Republican, had requested the investigation based on reports about the Northeast Partnership in Carolina Journal and in The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City. Norris had responded to an inquiry by Scott asking if she could “help us find someone that is an ally to Rep. Rhodes…?”

Norris responded to Scott and Watson on June 15 that “Rep. Rhodes is a true nutcase and I think that both of our Speakers would wholeheartedly agree.” She added that “the only allies that I am aware that Rhodes has are the very religious right folks, and I just do not have an ‘in’ with those folks.” Norris carbon-copied her response to House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore, and to two staffers in Co-Speaker Black’s office: Meredith Swindell and Julie Robinson. Black is a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

Watson, and his lawyer Ernie Pearson of Raleigh, had tried to contact Rhodes and according to the e-mail exchange said, “[Rhodes] will not call us back.” On June 18 Watson forwarded Norris’s response to almost four-dozen other individuals, including many of his own staff, other economic development officials in the state, and other government officials. Watson added to Norris’s comments that Pearson “has spoken to Campbell and I have spoken to the people who did our review and they do not know of any request by Rhodes so on(c)e again Paul Chesser and the Daily Advance have lied.”

Pearson told CJ that “it’s not something I can talk about” without authorization from his client. Watson did not return telephone and e-mail messages before publication time.

The Daily Advance reported about Rhodes’s audit request in its June 10 edition, a day after Rhodes said his legislative assistant hand-delivered his letter to Campbell’s office. He said he had the request re-delivered on June 18 and a representative from the auditor’s office signed an acknowledgement that the request was received. Asked about the e-mail exchange Rhodes said, “My request speaks for itself.”

According to the Elizabeth City newspaper, Watson said the Northeast Partnership had “already been investigated this year by the state Auditor, the state Attorney General’s office, the FBI, and the U.S. Treasury Department.” Watson told The Daily Advance that Campbell’s office reviewed six years’ worth of financial records and decided against a formal audit of the Northeast Partnership.

“We have a clean bill of health,” Watson said. “It’s already been investigated.”

Dennis Patterson, spokesman for Ralph Campbell, told CJ that the Auditor’s office never comments unless it releases a formal audit report. Investigations – or lack thereof – simply aren’t acknowledged, he said.

“We really don’t do clean bills of health,” he said. “Even a clean audit isn’t a clean bill of health.”

Rhodes had questioned the Northeast Partnership’s funding by the state and allegations that Watson had sought personal financial stakes in companies and projects that he tried to lure to his area. If true, such actions would represent a conflict of interest and a violation of his contract.

Asked by CJ how she arrived at her assessment about Rhodes, Norris said, “I really don’t have a comment on that.” Asked about her information about Rhodes’s “very religious right” alliances, she again declined comment. She did acknowledge that she sent the e-mail.

Southgate Jones III, a Durham businessman who co-chairs the NCPED, said Norris is not authorized to speak on behalf of the association, although she has communication responsibilities as part of her contract. He said that was limited to representing economic development interests and facilitating discussion among its members and outside agencies. Norris also declined comment when asked who she was representing when she advised Scott and Watson.

“Obviously that kind of rhetoric would not be representative of the NCPED,” Jones told CJ. “No one would condone that choice of language.” Jones said he would clarify with Norris the delineations of her communications role for NCPED.

Assistants to the Co-Speakers said Norris does not represent them, either.

“I can assure you that Meredith Norris does not speak for Speaker Morgan under any circumstances,” said his chief of staff, Sabra Faires. She had no comment about Morgan’s feelings about Rhodes.

“Clearly [Norris’s] comment about Rep. Rhodes was an off-the-cuff, inappropriate remark between her, Mr. Watson and Ms. Scott, which was not a direct quote from either Speaker,” said Julie Robinson, Black’s spokeswoman. “Clearly she was not speaking for Speaker Black.

“However, Rep. Rhodes and Speaker Black do not have a close relationship and Rep. Rhodes has been a very vocal and outspoken critic of the Co-Speakership arrangement and of both speakers since last year.”

One of Rhodes’s allies in the House disregarded Norris’s statement about his limited alliances. “He apparently is well-liked by all the people who elected him, because he doesn’t have any opposition [in this fall’s elections] and they couldn’t gerrymander him out,” said Rep. Russell Capps, a Wake County Republican who is also a leader in the county Christian Coalition. “I think [Norris’s remarks] are inappropriate and out of place. If taxpayers are paying her salary, I think it’s questionable that she would make those kinds of comments.

“I think Rep. Rhodes has every right to ask the auditor for an investigation if he thinks there’s something wrong.”

Late Wednesday, Norris e-mailed the following statement to CJ:

“My statements in the 6/15 e-mail were made by me and me alone and do not represent the views of any others. I sincerely regret the unkind sentiment that I expressed in this e-mail and have a learned a very valuable lesson so that this will never happen again.”

Norris has a contract with the NCPED that pays her a $2,750 per month salary and up to $400 monthly for medical insurance in exchange for performing administrative services. She is a registered lobbyist for the NCPED and arranges meetings of the seven partnerships, which are held in various locations around the state. Norris denied that she is an employee of the NCPED, but inquiries about the organization to the Department of Commerce and to two of the regional partnerships — the Charlotte Regional Partnership and AdvantageWest — were referred to Norris.

North Carolina’s seven regional partnerships pay membership fees to the NCPED. Altogether they receive more than $6 million in taxpayer dollars per year.

On Tuesday Norris answered a cell phone number belonging to “the Committee to Re-elect Jim Black.” She told CJ that she works for Black’s campaign as a volunteer and is not paid. “I happen to have that phone today,” she said, adding that Black usually keeps the campaign cell phone in his possession.

Norris was promoted to the position of liaison for Black’s legislative office on Jan. 1, 2002, and received a salary increase from $32,012 to $59,500. In 2002 she received a “Legislative Staff Achievement Award” from the National Conference of State Legislatures, “for outstanding contributions to the legislative process and the professional development of leadership staff.”

She left for a position with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 27, 2002. But by March of 2003 she moved on to work on a contractual basis for NCPED, which pays her $33,000 annually, nearly halving the pay she received when working for Black.

She did not reveal, when asked, whether she had other work besides her NCPED responsibilities. Southgate Jones III said her contract does not prohibit outside work, nor does it require a minimum time requirement for her NCPED work. He did not know if she had other employment.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]

Associate Publisher Don Carrington provided research for this report.