FROM THE NEWS & OBSERVER
By day, Mark Coggins is a top aide to N.C. House Rules Chairman David Lewis, serving as a committee clerk, spokesman and policy advisor to one of the state’s most powerful legislators.
Coggins also serves as Lewis’ campaign manager, a role he says is limited to hours when he’s not doing paid government work. Coggins is one of several government staffers who also work on their boss’ re-election efforts.
Lewis and Coggins say they’re careful to separate campaign business from the government-funded work they do at the Legislative Building.
“We have a firewalling in place,” Lewis said. “We don’t talk campaigns or political strategy in this office at all.”
In addition to Lewis, U.S. Rep. David Rouzer of Johnston County also has office staffers who work on his campaign. Danielle Adams is the communications director for Rouzer’s congressional office and holds a similar role for his re-election efforts. Deputy District Director Chance Lambeth also does paid campaign work.
When asked whether she worked for the campaign or the congressional staff, Adams encouraged a reporter to direct campaign-related questions to a Gmail email account and other inquires to her official House of Representatives account.
Experts on election law say the practice is legal – provided no campaign work takes place during a staffer’s work hours and they don’t use any government resources, such as computers or email accounts.
UNC School of Government professor Bob Joyce says the laws clearly “guarantee that people who work for the government have the right in their off hours to participate in political activity.”
“The problem is maintaining that separation … making sure that during work-related stuff or at work, none of this partisan political activity takes place,” he added.
And in Congress, the House Ethics Manual says it’s “permissible for House employees to do campaign work, but only outside of congressional space, without the use of any House resources, and on their own time.”
Adams, however, sent out a recent campaign news release during business hours.
“If there is an event during the work day, I utilize vacation time for that leave,” Coggins said when asked about the release. “I would also note the number on that press release rings to the district phone, which Greg Gebhardt or a volunteer answers.”
Joyce said it’s illegal for elected officials – or any other government employees in a supervisory role – to pressure their employees to participate in political activity.
Asked if he requested Coggins’ help on the campaign, Lewis said the work is “definitely something that he volunteered to do.”
Other issues with a dual role could arise if an elected official’s employee is soliciting campaign donations: People who have business with a politician’s government office might find that the staffers they worked with on a policy issue later ask them for money.
“There is that awkwardness,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which advocates for government transparency and accountability. “Those situations add to a public perception that there are areas of our campaign finance system that frankly are not always proper.”
Lewis said Coggins has no role in campaign fundraising, which is handled through a contract with Todd Batchelor, a consultant who has no connection to the legislative office.
Rouzer’s staff said their campaign work follows ethical guidelines and doesn’t take place in his congressional office. “We have two employees who split their time on the official and campaign side in accordance with House Ethics rules, which is a very common practice,” Adams said.
A review of campaign finance records found other members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation have paid their office staff to do campaign work in the past. Last year, Sen. Thom Tillis’ state director, Jordan Shaw, received regular payments from Tillis’ campaign for “management consulting.”
U.S. Reps. Renee Ellmers, G.K. Butterfield, David Price and George Holding all have had office staff in previous years who received payments from their campaigns, records show.
But campaign records indicate that the practice isn’t common at the state level, although some legislative staffers leave the government payroll during campaign season. For example, Senate leader Phil Berger’s chief of staff, Jim Blaine, quit for several months in 2014 to work for Berger’s campaign, returning after the election.
And Lewis recently asked policy advisor Greg Gebhardt to leave the legislature and instead serve as a campaign manager in his own district. Lewis said he’s not sure whether he’ll fill Gebhardt’s legislative position during the short session or if Gebhardt will return to his old job after November.
Rouzer’s use of double-duty staffers is already drawing criticism from his opponent in the March 15 Republican primary, Mark Otto.
“There is simply no need for Congressman Rouzer to instruct publicly paid employees to conduct campaign activity, especially when he already has a half-million-dollar campaign war chest specifically for such activity,” Otto said. “If elected, no members of my staff will be permitted by me to participate in any campaign activity whatsoever.”