RALEIGH – The top aide to North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis said Friday he has resigned after a newspaper questioned his relationship with a registered lobbyist.
Chief of Staff Charles Thomas confirmed to The Associated Press that he resigned Thursday but denies doing anything illegal or violating ethical standards under the law.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Friday about Thomas’ relationship with the female lobbyist, pointing to photos, video and eyewitness accounts of the pair showing affection to each other in public places by a private investigative agency based in Raleigh.
Thomas, a former state House member from Buncombe County who is married, refused to discuss with the AP the nature of the relationship and questioned who would pay to follow him around. The newspaper identified the lobbyist as Jessica Hayes, who works for the North Carolina Home Builders Association as its political affairs director.
“Someone really needs to find out who paid for it because it’s new territory in North Carolina politics to follow a state employee,” Thomas said in an interview Friday. The newspaper said the agency was working for an unidentified client.
Hayes didn’t return a message on her cellphone Friday morning seeking comment. Records filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office show Hayes has been an association lobbyist since 2008. The association didn’t immediately have a comment Friday.
Tillis said Friday he has accepted Thomas’ resignation. The Legislature reconvenes May 16 for its traditional budget adjustment session.
“An individual’s personal life should remain personal, but to avoid professional distractions from the tasks in front of us, I have accepted his resignation,” Tillis said in a prepared statement. “Charles is a friend who has spent many years in service to his state and his country, and I wish him well in the future.”
Tillis named policy adviser Chris Hayes as acting chief of staff.
Thomas, 40, said the speaker rents a room in his Raleigh apartment when he is town for legislative business. Thomas said it’s his “absolute belief” that the speaker would have only known that he was “very good friends” with Hayes. Thomas and Tillis were seatmates on the House floor during Thomas’ one term in the Legislature in 2007-08.
Thomas rejected arguments that the association had some kind of inside track to the speaker’s office to lobby for legislation because of that relationship. Thomas said his job as chief of staff was more operational in nature rather than pushing certain policies through the Legislature.
“My job was to run the trains on time ... and not to decide where they go,” Thomas said. While The News & Observer cited a letter from another association lobbyist detailing successes for homebuilders at the Legislature this year, Thomas said “they didn’t get anything last session.”
The North Caroline Home Builders Association is one of the more powerful lobbying groups at the Legislature and its political action committee has been generous in giving to campaigns of members of both major parties. The association PAC reported giving $277,600 to political committees during the 2009-10 election cycle, according to a report filed with the State Board of Elections. Hayes, one of four registered lobbyists for the group, is listed on the association’s web site as the contact for its political action committee.
The Legislature passed overhauls to ethics and lobbying laws in 2006 that apply to Hayes and Thomas.
A legislative employee like Thomas is barred from accepting “anything of value” in return for “being influenced in the discharge of the covered person’s or legislative employee’s official responsibilities.” With some exceptions, a gift includes food and drink but doesn’t apply to those given received as part of a personal relationship unrelated to the legislative employee’s position. Similar rules hold true for lobbyists as it relates to giving.
Thomas said it’s been common for him to pay the bill at restaurants for everyone who attends an event.
“I’m absolutely positive that no laws were broken and no ethical standards under the law were violated,” he said Friday.
Jane Pinsky with the nonpartisan North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform said the disclosure of the relationship feeds into the perception that people who have connections to high-ranking officials get more access to legislative leaders.
“The issue is not whether Charles Thomas did or did not do something, but when it becomes public, it makes citizens more cynical about government,” she said.