(Updated at 3:47 p.m. to include new information from Sen. Berger’s spokeswoman Shelly Carver.)
Gov. Roy Cooper’s debate over the definition of a “Cabinet appointee” summons the memory of President Clinton infamously arguing before a grand jury over the meaning of the word “is.” In this case, legislative leaders are saying Cooper’s vocabulary polemics could have an effect on whether the governor’s appointees are confirmed for Cabinet posts.
Larry Hall, the nominee for secretary of military and veterans affairs, is already serving in that role. He was scheduled for a confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee, but he failed for a second time to appear. Hall also refused to show up Feb. 8.
Hall’s nonappearance follows a letter Cooper issued Tuesday night informing Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, that he contends the Senate’s announced plan for Cabinet confirmation hearings violates a court order issued last week.
Sen. Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, committee co-chairman, read a statement after Hall failed to enter the committee room.
“By disrespecting this process, Secretary Hall is openly defying a law that has been backed up by the courts and is plainly allowed in the [state] constitution,” Meredith said.
The committee rescheduled the confirmation hearing for Thursday. Meredith said Hall should show up, “follow the law, and answer questions about his qualifications and background — just like President Trump’s cabinet nominees did before the U.S. Senate.”
If Hall does not appear before the committee, Meredith said, “he should bear in mind there are consequences when state officials refuse to follow the law.” He did not specify what those consequences might be.
Meredith said a three-judge panel has denied Cooper’s request to continue blocking what Republicans contend is constitutionally permissible Senate confirmation of his Cabinet secretaries.
“Yet, once again, his nominee is a no-show. We are very disappointed Gov. Cooper has ordered Secretary Larry Hall not to participate in this fair, open and transparent hearing process,” Meredith said.
Referring to the amount of discussion about what constitutes an appointee, Meredith asked committee members to refer to documents provided them that show:
- Jan. 1, Cooper named Hall as secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
- Jan. 16, Hall resigned from the General Assembly, saying, “I am fortunate to have been appointed to be the State Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs by The Honorable Roy Cooper, 75th Governor of North Carolina.” He took an oath of office and has been serving in that capacity ever since.
- A Feb. 9 story in the Raleigh News & Observer reported that Hall will earn a taxpayer-funded annual salary of $130,935.
- Tuesday, Hall attended a meeting of the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission as its secretary. And the department’s website lists him as secretary.
“So it is hard to conceive how anyone could argue with a straight face that he is not yet nominated,” Meredith said.
“As we have said all along, the purpose of the confirmation hearings is to determine whether Gov. Cooper’s cabinet secretaries are capable, qualified, without conflicts of interest, and willing to follow the laws of our state and nation.”
Cooper’s actions have “made clear he doesn’t always respect and follow the law,” Meredith said, but Hall took an oath of office and must uphold it. “He has a fiduciary duty to the people of this state to obey the law — even if the governor directs him not to.”
He said Hall “is failing one of the three basic tests we need to see to prove basic fitness for the role he is currently serving,” and that will be considered as his nomination goes forward.
Hall also ran afoul of state law at a Military Affairs Committee meeting that was not legally posted, during which an agenda item was removed in objection to the media being present. It was later taken up when the media and members of the public interested in the item had left.
In a statement Tuesday night by Cooper’s office, the governor said Senate leaders should be concentrating on repealing House Bill 2, and raising teacher pay. Instead, they are trying “to rush to conduct hearings before a March 7 court date that will decide whether such a requirement violates the North Carolina Constitution.”
Cooper’s interpretation of the three-judge panel’s decision is that the Senate cannot begin a confirmation process before he formally submits his Cabinet to the legislature. Cooper says he has until May 15 to do so.
“The Court will decide whether or not the legislature’s actions are constitutional. Until then, Governor Cooper hopes Senate Republicans will put aside the political theater and work to find common ground on issues that matter to North Carolinians like raising teacher pay, helping communities recover from Hurricane Matthew, and repealing H.B. 2,” said Cooper spokesman Ford Porter.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.