News: Quick Takes

Senate committee issues subpoena ordering DHHS nominee to appear March 29

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, calls to order a March 15 meeting of the Senate Health Care Committee. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, calls to order a March 15 meeting of the Senate Health Care Committee. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

The Senate Health Care Committee launched a preemptive move Wednesday and voted, 11-3, along partisan lines to issue a subpoena ordering Dr. Mandy Cohen to appear March 29 for a confirmation hearing as secretary of health and human services.

“Rather than invite her and deal with an empty chair again, and all of those issues, we’re just going to issue a subpoena” to compel her attendance, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, committee co-chairman, said after the meeting.

Hise directed that comment at Larry Hall, secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, who dodged three hearings before he was forced by subpoena to attend a confirmation hearing.

Hise said other Cabinet nominees of Gov. Roy Cooper are likely to face similar fates, including the transportation and cultural resources secretary nominees, Jim Trogdon and Susi Hamilton, respectively.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, was the only committee member to speak during committee debate on the motion.

“I’ve already met Secretary Cohen and find her to be an extremely competent individual,” Robinson said. “This process is unnecessary. … I just want to register that dissent with this committee.”

“We’ve actually been told it was the request of the governor to go ahead and just subpoena the members rather than him just send them, so that’s what we’re going to go ahead and do, and begin this process,” Hise said.

“No one has specifically made that statement. I have to be clear on that,” he said of Cooper directing his Cabinet appointees to avoid their confirmation hearings. “I would say that I believe intentionally no one has made that statement because I asked that question very specifically.”

Still, Hise said, his conversations with Cohen and other Cabinet nominees have suggested a willingness to answer any questions from the committee. “So I think it’s a conflict with the governor and not individual secretaries.”

Cooper filed a lawsuit but has not prevailed in his attempt to block the Senate’s constitutional power to advise and consent on a governor’s appointees.

A request for a response as to whether he’s advising nominees not to attend confirmation hearings without a subpoena was sent to Cooper’s press office.

Neither Press Secretary Noelle Talley nor other press office employees have responded to that request or to numerous voice mail and email requests on a range of issues from CJ since assuming their positions.

Hise said he’s “made it clear” to nominees who will appear before his committees, and at every chance he’s had to discuss the matter in public that “when a committee of the General Assembly asks a state employee or the head of a state agency to come, that’s not really a request you consider for very long. You show up and you answer our questions.”

Hise was asked whether he or other committee members might have elevated concerns with Cohen’s nomination because of her former role as chief operating officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

She was tapped for the secretary post at a time Cooper was requesting from her agency an unprecedented expedited approval of a Medicaid expansion plan that circumvented state law.

Concerns also have been raised about potential conflicts of interest. Cohen’s husband, Sam, is a health-care lawyer.

“One of the areas we’re all looking at is willingness to follow the law. I think it’s important that I ask questions, and see if the governor takes actions —  or others — that are clearly in violation of state law, how is she going to react to those as secretary, and how is she going to deal with that,” Hise said.

“Is her oath to follow the law of the state of North Carolina or follow the governor? I think that we’ll see those type of questions from all of our committee members,” Hise said.

“It’s important to look into her background and see if she has any conflicts of interest, and allow her to respond to those, or any, concerns that we have,” he said.