Campaigning for governor, Republican nominee Pat McCrory has become used to the airplane banner that's sometimes flown over his head. "Who Pays McCrory.com?" it reads. Other times, McCrory will arrive to see someone wearing an owl suit and holding a sign that asks, "Hoo Pays McCrory?"
It's political theater brought to you by an independent advocacy group with ties to the Democratic Party. But it's theater with a serious point. McCrory refuses to disclose his tax returns. Not for last year. Not for any year.
Nor will McCrory say much about his current post with Moore & Van Allen, a law firm that also employs lobbyists in Raleigh. McCrory is neither a lawyer nor, by his reckoning, a lobbyist, which allows him to skirt the state's disclosure requirements for lobbyists. Instead, he is listed as his firm's director of strategic initiatives: "Nature of business: policy consultant/client development marketing."
On the form he filed as a candidate under the state ethics law, McCrory wasn't required to list his clients at the firm, how much they paid him or what they want from government. He was required to list sources of income over $5,000. He listed his salary at Moore & Van Allen in that category.
Unlike Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who's been widely criticized for not revealing enough of his tax history, even though he did disclose his 2010 income tax return and a 2011 estimate, McCrory's refusal to share his personal tax returns is total and unyielding.
At the state level, if McCrory were a different candidate with a more robust record in public office or in business, the question of how much he's been paid and by whom might be dismissed as an effort to divert attention from his accomplishments. McCrory, who's worked hard to master the art of the political shuck-and-grin, is trying his best to brush it off as nothing the public should be concerned about.
So far, he seems to be succeeding. Polls have consistently shown McCrory with a four-to eight-point lead over his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, despite his critics' and Dalton's chiding. Dalton did release his 2011 and 2010 tax returns, which show he earned $161,000 and $140,000 respectively. Dalton no longer practices law, and his income is mostly what he makes as lieutenant governor—$123,000 annually, according to the Associated Press.
Still, the money question is continually asked of McCrory, as it was last week by an Asheville Citizen-Times columnist and with a television interviewer on News 14's Capitol Tonight program. This is because his public record is so scant and his employment history so—as the Citizen-Times' Jon Ostendorff put it—"kind of secretive."
McCrory's campaign hasn't responded to our request for a sit-down interview. That may come. When we asked 10 days ago, his press secretary, Ricky Diaz, said McCrory is extremely busy.
McCrory has run for governor before, winning the Republican nomination in 2008 before losing by 145,000 votes to Democrat Bev Perdue. Following that defeat, he kept on running. He helped Republican candidates in the 2010 legislative elections and made no secret of his intention to run for governor again this year. He's been interviewed many times, including by the Indy, and his answers don't vary from a script laden with pro-business cheerleading and a pledge to cut taxes on the well-off and corporations.
The closest McCrory ever comes to saying what he's done in his business or his public life is when he declares, as he did last month in a speech to the Kiwanis Club of Raleigh, "I'm an economic development recruiter. I have been all my life."
McCrory has long been secretive about his finances. He served as mayor of Charlotte for 14 years, and for all of that time he was on the payroll at Duke Energy, the giant Charlotte-based utility. But neither he nor Duke would say exactly what he did for the company, except that he was considered a full-time employee and had no management responsibilities. Nor would they say how much he was paid. (Prior to being mayor, he had a series of jobs with Duke, the last of which was as an employee training manager.)
The Charlotte Observer regularly noted that, as mayor, McCrory seemed to never miss a ribbon cutting and logged virtually full-time hours for a city salary of less than $20,000. Many in Charlotte, the newspaper reported, thought Duke Energy was paying McCrory to be mayor, under the rationale that if Charlotte grew, so would Duke's electricity sales, and the affable McCrory, with his easy grin, was nothing if not pro-growth.
Indeed, during McCrory's tenure, the Charlotte metro area was among the nation's fastest-growing areas. However, that had less to do with McCrory—or Duke—than with the fact that two of America's then-biggest banks, First Union and Wachovia, were headquartered there.
A few things are known about McCrory's income. He sits on the board of directors of Tree.com, a mortgage lending corporation also known as Lending Tree. McCrory went on the board in 2009, when he was still mayor of Charlotte. He was paid, according to the corporation's disclosures, a total of $140,833 in fees and stock awards in his first year on the board, almost all of which overlapped with his final year as mayor. He was paid another $215,000 in 2010 and 2011, for a three-year total of $355,833.
In 2006, while mayor, but before joining the Tree.com board, McCrory wrote to the state Department of Commerce urging that the company be offered a generous incentives package to remain in North Carolina—a more generous one than the $24 million the state was offering at the time.
That letter, included among McCrory's mayoral papers at UNC-Charlotte, provided grist for a TV attack ad. It accused McCrory of advocating for tax breaks for a company with questionable lending practices, and was later paid $140,000 to sit on its board while he was still in public office.
The ad, paid for a group called N.C. Citizens for Progress, which gets the bulk of its money from the Democratic Governors Association, prompted McCrory to threaten a lawsuit for defamation. But McCrory never filed it. Instead, Citizens for Progress sued him, demanding that he admit the ad was true. The suit is viewed as an attempt to force McCrory to disclose more about his sources of income. It's unclear whether the suit will result in any court action before the November election.
On his state ethics form, McCrory listed Lending Tree as one of his sources of income exceeding $5,000. He also listed Kewaunee Scientific Corp., a manufacturing firm headquartered in Statesville where he is a director, and three firms for which he was paid consulting fees. All paid him at least $5,000. He wasn't required to disclose how much more or what he did for them.
Moore & Van Allen's lobbying clients, according to the firm's disclosures, include the N.C. Petroleum Council, which supports fracking and drilling for oil and gas in offshore North Carolina waters. McCrory also supports fracking, drilling and nuclear power, a position that aligns with Duke Energy's policy.
Another Moore & Van Allen client, International Internet Technologies, LLC, sells products to Internet gaming parlors. The firm was one of the two that went to court last year and successfully argued that the state law against sweepstakes gaming parlors should be struck down,.There's no indication that McCrory is involved with the company, however.
If McCrory is elected, and if, as seems likely, the Republicans hold their majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, McCrory gives every indication that he will be a team player for the GOP, giving his trademark grin and spin to whatever legislation the Republicans pass.
Tax cuts, "streamlining bureaucracy" and easing business regulations were the themes he touched on with the Kiwanis members in July, a package he equated with freshening North Carolina's "brand" of low taxes and a well-educated workforce.
How would he maintain educational quality in North Carolina while cutting taxes? "We have to do more with less," he replied.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Show us the money."