The North Carolina Ethics Commission has ruled that sexual favors or sexual acts between lobbyists and state government officials don't need to be reported as a gift or "thing of value" in disclosure forms under the state's lobbying laws.
Under North Carolina law, lobbyists are required to report any gift or "thing of value" given to a state government official that exceeds the value of $10. Although sex is something that is often purchased illegally through prostitution throughout the world, the ethics commission ruled in mid-February that sex doesn't hold an official value, therefore there's no need for lobbyists to disclose sex they might've had with a government official.
"Consensual sexual relationships do not have monetary value and therefore are not 'reportable expenditures made for lobbying' for purposes of the lobbying law's expenditure reporting provisions," the commission's advisory opinion states.
The commission's opinion comes in response to an inquiry from the North Carolina Secretary of State's lobbying compliance director, Joal Broun, sent on Dec. 15.
Although the commission's ruling seems to have provided a green light for lobbyists to offer sex to government officials, the commission's advisory indicates that their ruling could only be as vague as Joal's hypothetical request and did not go into detail about the morality of exchanging sex for a political favor.
"You have asked whether consensual 'sexual favors or sexual acts' between a lobbyist and a designated individual constitutes a gift or 'thing of value' that would trigger the gift ban and reporting requirements," the opinion reads. "You have made this request in a general and largely hypothetical context, with little or no supporting evidence or no supporting facts. This response must therefore be likewise limited."
Although the opinion states that lobbyists are not required to report sexual acts with state officials, the ruling asserts that the provision of prostitution services or paid sex by the lobbying principal could be deemed a gift in need of reporting, however, the gift of prostitution would be an illegal one under state laws.
"Thus if the lobbyist does not receive payment from the lobbyist principal for engaging in the sexual relationship which you reference, which the commission presumes to be the case here, those activities would not constitute goodwill lobbying and would therefore not trigger a registration requirement," the opinion continues.
Because the commission ruled that sex between a lobbyist and state official does not need to be reported as long as a lobbyist is not paid by the lobbying principal to have sex with the official, critics of the ruling feel as though the opinion could open the door to unethical and immoral lobbying behavior.
In the Beaufort Observer's unsigned op-ed entitled "Has the State Ethics Commission Made Prostitution Legal in North Carolina?" it was opined that the commission's ruling could clear the way for registered lobbyists to offer themselves sexually to government officials on their own accord.
"You can hire yourself out as a lobbyist and pull down big bucks for the job of getting special favors done for your clients and those clients are more than willing to pay big bucks for your service," the op-ed states. "And many of those clients don't really care how you get them those favors from bureaucrats or elected officials as you produce what they want."
Rev. Mark Creech, director of the North Carolina Christian Action League, thinks that the Beaufort Observers' op-ed "is a poor interpretation" of what the commission's opinion means in the grand context of lobbying.
"It is easy to run with a sensational story and try to make something that is really not there. I don't believe that is what is taking place in this case," Creech told The Christian Post. "The ethics ruling ruled on a hypothetical. The way I understand it is that they are basically just saying that with the information that they have been given, there is no way that they can place a monetary value on a consensual sexual relationships."
Creech does not think the commission's ruling provides a green light for lobbyists to use sex in order to sway a political decision.
"How do you possibly judge in someway that consensual sex is affecting how a lawmaker votes one way or another on critical issues that are on the table?" Creech asked. "I think that they have also said in their ruling that each case would have to be looked at individually so as to make a decision as to whether there was some sort of undue influence going on here."
Creech continued by saying that the real question that needs to be asked is why the secretary of state's office sent the commission a request to answer such a question. In 2012, the chief of staff and policy advisor for then-House Speaker Thom Tilllis, who's now a U.S. Senator, were forced to resign when the commission investigated their intimate relationships with two registered lobbyists.
"There have been sex scandals that have occurred in North Carolina within the last couple of years. Sometimes, and this is pure conjecture on my part, these kinds of requests come up and there is something partisan happening here," Creech opined. "You have to remember the secretary of state's office is run by a Democrat and it is Republicans who are in control and you have to wonder with that kind of request whether there is some kind of witch hunt going on."
"You have to wonder if there was something that was being driven by somebody looking for a ruling here on ethics that would somehow acknowledge that they may have had [knowledge] about a sex scandal," he added. "Whether or not the new ruling or a clear ruling about this that condemns what they knew was going on, it could have been used and leveraged against those persons."