State Officials Assail Snacks, Beer for N. Carolina’s Hired Lawyers

Published December 14, 2009

Beer and snacks were on the agenda at a meeting of the North Carolina Council of State—and they had one executive-branch officer fuming.

The council, consisting of 10 elected officials including the lieutenant governor, meets periodically to vote on resource allocation and to streamline information between executive agencies.

At an October council meeting, Attorney General Roy Cooper requested $103,771 in additional funds to finance the state’s pollution control lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority, currently on appeal to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, one of two Republicans on the council, objected to past reimbursements for two private law firms assisting Cooper with the suit.

“Information is out there that in the past we have paid for things like snack food, beer, valet parking, hotel rooms that haven’t been used, [and] upgrades to airline tickets on some of these invoices from these law firms,” Berry said at the meeting.

Cutting 25 Positions
Invoices show Cooper’s office used taxpayer funds to reimburse Resolution Law Group, since renamed Hunsucker Goodstein & Nelson PC, thousands of dollars in travel expenses.

Records also show Cooper paid a second firm, the Ayres Law Group, as much as $515 per hour to assist in the case.

The reimbursements in part came from $1.7 million in gas-tax revenue and inspection and maintenance fees the legislature transferred to Cooper’s office from the North Carolina Division of Air Quality to help meet TVA litigation expenses. DAQ is planning to cut 25 staff positions in the current fiscal year, and budget constraints caused by the money transfers are cited as one reason for the agency’s cuts.

Expense Info Incomplete
Berry particularly criticized $60 in snack food and $5.50 for a beer. State law prohibits taxpayer-funded reimbursements for alcohol.

“That’s embarrassing to me—that we’re buying snack food for attorneys that are being paid $515 an hour. They can buy their own snack food,” Berry said.

Cooper responded that the expenses had been “scrubbed.” If a disallowed expense comes in, “then it is deducted from a future bill or it is requested that it be paid back,” he said.

In a telephone interview, Berry said she wasn’t comfortable voting to approve the funds without knowing whether past expenses were appropriate.

“I guess sometimes it’s those little tiny things that really start to get under my skin,” she said.

David N. Bass ([email protected]) is an investigative reporter and associate editor for Carolina Journal.