by Billy Ball
Republican leaders are defending their choice to hire an attorney married to the state's top elections administrator to defend North Carolina in its ongoing voter ID litigation.
As reported in this week's Indy, State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach is married to Phil Strach, one of a team of attorneys representing the N.C. General Assembly and the Board of Elections in the lawsuit. As of early October, her husband's firm, in which he is a shareholder, had billed the state for $1.14 million in legal fees. The case will likely be heard next year.
Because the funding technically comes from the General Assembly, it would not constitute a conflict of interest under the state's ethics law. But, as past and present state officials argued in the report, public officials such as the Board of Elections director should be held to a higher standards.
"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.
GOP reps seemed to blame the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has stated his opposition to the voter ID law. Even though the firm was chosen by the General Assembly, Republicans said Cooper's office approved of the arrangement.
Anna Roberts, spokeswoman for N.C. House of Representatives Speaker Thom Tillis, said in a brief statement this week that the firm, Ogletree Deakins, has a history with the legislature. Lawmakers hired Ogletree in 2011 to defend Republican's controversial redistricting plans. She pointed out Ogletree lawyer Tom Farr represented the GOP during legal challenges to Democrats' redistricting in the 1990s and 2000s.
"There's no one more qualified in this state, and perhaps the country, than Mr. Farr is to represent the North Carolina General Assembly," said Roberts. "The successes Mr. Farr has obtained for the state to date reinforce that point."
Meanwhile, State Board of Elections Chairman Josh Howard, a Republican, had little to say about the matter. "The State Board is a bipartisan and independent agency dedicated to fair elections throughout North Carolina," Howard said in a statement. "The Attorney General's Office is best situated to describe their coordination with Ogletree."