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N.C. Lottery may need bigger consequences for lapse in ethics

Nov 8, 2005, 6:31 am

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North Carolina Lottery

After taking a seat on the state lottery commission, Charlotte public relations executive Kevin Geddings was required to disclose in a state filing that he had a financial relationship with a lottery company.

Geddings did not do it.

But the stiffest penalty for a failure to disclose such information is for the N.C. Board of Ethics to recommend removal of the offender from his or her position.

North Carolina is one of the few states in the nation without a broad ethics law, though North Carolina laws do have provisions against taking bribes or kickbacks.

Many other states have sweeping laws that cover questions of ethics and conflicts of interest, and many violations are enforced with fines and prosecution.

"Do I wish I had a bigger stick? Yes, I do," said Perry Newson, executive director of the N.C. Ethics Board.

"We base our whole evaluation system on the honesty and integrity of the people who fill out those forms," Newson said Monday. "If they don't, you can't point out conflicts of interest or potential conflicts to them."

A national expert on ethics said North Carolina should have a paramount interest in making sure it gets the right answers to questions it asks, including those about the financial interests of people on state boards and commissions.

"One way to persuade people to provide it is to allow for prosecutions and penalties," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor and government ethics specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.

The situation with Geddings is not the only time the issue of failing to disclose information has come up in North Carolina.

In 2003, the executive director of the state Human Relations Commission resigned after he was forced to disclose income that he had not reported on the ethics statement for several years.

In the mid 1990s, the director of the state Alcohol Law Enforcement division failed to report a land deal on his ethics form. He resigned in 1997.

Geddings stepped down from the lottery commission last week hours before lottery company Scientific Games disclosed that it paid him $24,500 this year, including a $9,500 payment after Geddings was on the lottery panel.

Lottery commissioners determine who gets major lottery business.

On his ethics form, Geddings was asked to identify entities with which he had a financial relationship that could pose a conflict of interest. He answered, "None."

He also was asked to list sources of income of $10,000 or more, and he did not identify Scientific Games as one of them.

In a catch-all question about any information that could pose a conflict of interest, Geddings did not say he was a paid consultant for Scientific Games this year.

Geddings, like hundreds of appointees to boards and commissions, signed the form saying it was "true, correct and complete."

He did not return a call for comment Monday.

There does not appear to be a law that makes it a crime to provide incorrect information on such an ethics disclosure form in North Carolina, officials said.

Newson said the ethics board might explore that question in depth when it meets next week.

"The bottom line is: We're advisory," he said.

In other states, officials have been prosecuted for knowingly or willfully filing false information. Many are fined and required to perform community service.

In Ohio this year, for example, Gov. Bob Taft was prosecuted for failing to report nearly $6,000 in gifts, and a judge ordered him to pay $4,000 in fines and write a letter to the people of Ohio acknowledging his violation of ethics laws.

Lawmakers in North Carolina have seen bills filed in recent years to establish a sweeping ethics law. Backed by many Republicans, who have been in the minority, none have been approved.

Some Democrats are now clearly interested.

On Monday, Senate leader Marc Basnight said he wants to study the issue. During an interview, the Manteo Democrat asked his staff to gather information on the subject.

Other lawmakers say it's time to give more attention to ethics.

"This whole realm is really operating in a fuzzy, gray area," said Sen. Janet Cowell, a Raleigh Democrat. "There should be consequences."

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