Kim Westbrook Strach, once a dogged elections investigator known for her high-profile corruption cases, may now be on the other end of controversy.
Strach, the State Board of Elections executive director, has family connections that could benefit her in a lawsuit filed against the state over its controversial GOP-backed voting reforms. She is married to Phil Strach, who is on a team of lawyers defending the board of elections and the legislature in that lawsuit. The suit was filed by a group, including the N.C. chapters of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.
The suit, which is expected to go to court next summer, has already cost taxpayers more than $1.14 million in legal fees, paid to Phil Strach's firm, Ogletree Deakins. Phil Strach is a shareholder in the national firm, which specializes in labor and employment law.
"There is a perception of an ethical conflict. Just about anyone could agree to that," said Gary Bartlett, a Democratic appointee who served as the State Board of Elections director for 20 years.
Appointed by a new right-leaning Board of Elections, Kim Strach replaced Bartlett last year. Bartlett is among the state officials subpoenaed in the lawsuit, which centers on a 2013 law, led by Republicans, that reduced early voting by seven days, ended same-day registration, restricted youth voting drives and enacted some of the most strict voter ID provisions in the country.
Several organizations, including the plaintiffs, say the law disenfranchises poor and minority voters, a voting bloc that typically skews toward Democrats.
While the board of elections director is considered a nonpartisan administrator, Kim Strach took the unusual step this month of openly condemning a federal appeals court's decision to stay a certain portion of the voting law for this fall's election. (The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling.) In a press release, Kim Strach said the appeals court's move would only confuse voters.
Last year, state lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory hired outside firms in the election lawsuit because Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office represents the state in legal proceedings, opposed the reforms. Cooper, a Democrat, is expected to run for governor in 2016.
As an investigator, Kim Strach helped lead probes into the campaigns of former governors Bev Perdue and Mike Easley, as well as former House Speaker Jim Black and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, all of them Democrats. Aside from Perdue, all were later convicted of or pled guilty to federal corruption charges.
Kim Strach declined a phone interview with the INDY, but in an email, she said she had no role in the legislature's selection of Ogletree Deakins. She added that no state board funds were spent on the firm, and that the legislature chose the firm before she was hired as board director in May 2013. She also said she believes her family has made no money off of the case.
Under North Carolina's ethics law, Kim Strach would have to sway the hiring decision or spend Board of Elections funds on the firm to constitute a legal conflict of interest, experts say.
"But moral concerns about conflict of interest are not the same as legal concerns," said Geoff Sayre-McCord, a professor in politics and philosophy at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. "Something can be perfectly legal and immoral, just as something can be perfectly illegal and moral. There's something to be said for the importance of maintaining a respectable appearance."
Legal or not, Bartlett said Kim Strach's marriage to a GOP-connected lawyer seemed too close during his tenure and it seems too close now. Concerns about the relationship led election officials to reconsider her assignments as an investigator in 2010, when a Democratic Party lawyer complained during her investigation of alleged campaign violations by Perdue.
"If it were my wife and I, we would have to sit down, see what was best for our family, and I would suggest that one of us change course," Bartlett said. "That's something I don't think I could be comfortable with."
Douglas MacLean, a professor in political theory and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill, said it seems "ethically problematic" for the state's elections director to potentially benefit from a voting lawsuit.
"It does not seem that Kim Strach has violated any laws, but what is ethically right or wrong, wise or foolish, proper or improper, is determined by more than the law," MacLean said, adding that public servants such as the elections director should be held to a higher standard.
"I have a legal and moral right to freedom of expression, but it would be morally wrong of me nevertheless to gratuitously insult people I see on the street," he said. "Ethics in public life involves not just staying within the law but also appearances in matters that instill or undermine public confidence."
N.C. Rep. Duane Hall, a Wake County Democrat and attorney who sits on the state House Elections Committee, said he does not understand how a husband and wife in such positions could "wall themselves off" from each other.
"I do think she's done a good job in a lot of instances," Hall said. "But (Senate President Phil) Berger and (House Speaker Thom) Tillis chose a law firm where Phil Strach is employed. At the very least, it's bad judgment."
Kim Strach was promoted to executive director last year by a board of McCrory appointees that includes three Republicans and two Democrats. Board chair Joshua Howard, a Republican, could not be reached for comment. Tilllis' office also did not provide a comment before press time.
But Maja Kricker, a Democrat from Chatham County appointed to the state Board of Elections last year by McCrory, said she told the board's attorney last spring that she was worried Kim Strach's marriage represented a conflict.
Kricker said she was advised the relationship was of no concern. In retrospect, Kricker said Kim Strach's hiring may have been a mistake.
"Even though it is not strictly considered a conflict of interest, I think that I would not have done that," Kricker said. "Simply because the relationship is obviously being perceived as too close."
And while Kricker praised Kim Strach for being nonpartisan in most of her decisions, Strach's public rebuke of the appeals court decision this month seemed "inappropriate," Kricker said. "No matter what decision comes from our courts, we will be implementing it. We have no business commenting on a court decision."
Board of Elections spokesman Josh Lawson said that in addition to Phil Strach, Ogletree's team of attorneys is led by Republican Tom Farr, who represented the party as it challenged Democrats' redistricting when they controlled the legislature.
In 2009, Farr was also hired by conservatives on the Wake County Board of Education as they prepped plans to scrap the school system's diversity requirements for attendance zones.
Board of Elections records show Kim Strach is not affiliated with any party, but her husband, Phil, is a registered Republican with a history of donations to top party officials such as McCrory and state Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County lawmaker and House Elections Committee chair who led the GOP overhaul of voting districts following the 2010 census.
Phil Strach's firm is also representing the state in a court challenge to Republican redistricting headed up by Lewis. The state had been billed about $1.8 million in legal fees by August for that suit, according to an Associated Press report this month.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The sniff test"