Council of State news for November

North Carolina State Auditor Beth Wood. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — November’s Council of State news includes educators receiving national awards, reinstatement of fire marshals, the governor out of the state for the second time in a month, and the resignation and replacement of the state auditor.

The North Carolina Council of State (COS) is an administrative body of 10 elected officials who are heads of their departments. Council members include the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, and superintendent of public instruction.

Gov. Roy Cooper traveled out of state for the second time in a month to Florida where he spoke at the Financial Times-Nikkei Investing in America Summit held at the Perez Art Museum in Miami on Nov. 7.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson temporarily became governor for the second time in a month when Cooper traveled to Florida. He also issued a statement on Nov. 14 regarding the N.C. Democratic Party’s rejection of a Jewish Caucus in the wake of the Oct. Hamas terror attacks on Israel.

“Today’s Democrat Party vote against welcoming a Jewish group is another sad example of their refusal to stand with Israel and the Jewish people against terrorism. State Democrat lawmakers walked out of votes instead of supporting Israel and standing against terror,” Robinson said in part.

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler announced the promotion of Greg Hicks of Oxford to assistant commissioner overseeing operations of the North Carolina Forest Service. Hicks previously served as assistant state forester and will replace retiring assistant commissioner Scott Bissette.

Troxler also promoted Dr. Marcus Helfrich to director of the Standards Division effective Nov. 1. Helfrich previously served as program manager of the fuel quality laboratory and will replace Steve Benjamin, who is retiring.  The commissioner also issued burn bans for areas in nearly a third of the western part of the state beset by wildfires. Those burn bans were rescinded as November drew to a close.

During a Nov. 1 meeting of the House Oversight Committee regarding pandemic unemployment insurance (UI) payments, State Auditor Beth Wood gave testimony regarding the state’s history of late UI payments. During that hearing, she also told legislators she would not be seeking reelection in 2024.

“I just wanted to take this time today to announce to this committee, whose many members are near and dear to my heart and enjoy working with them, that I’m announcing this afternoon that I am not running for reelection,” Wood said.

On Nov. 7, news broke that a grand jury had charged Wood in connection with allegations she had misused a state vehicle for commuting purposes, a use that is prohibited by state policy. The investigation is related to Wood’s Dec. 20, 2022, hit-and-run accident in a Toyota Camry owned by the state.

Wood’s use of a state vehicle was suspended in January 2023 and state motor fleet management began questioning her personal commuting use of the car in violation of state policies. The state auditor pled guilty to the misdemeanor in March 2023 and she also admitted in court that she had been drinking at a Christmas party prior to the accident but denied being impaired behind the wheel.

Two days after the Grand Jury handed down the indictment against her, Wood announced she was resigning effective Dec. 15.

Announcements out of Attorney General Josh Stein’s office included joining a federal civil antitrust lawsuit against Agri Stats, Inc. for “working with chicken, pork, and turkey processors to artificially inflate the price of food,” and securing a court order against Prehired, a student loan vendor.

The Prehired order compelled the lender to permanently close, pay over $4.2 million in restitution to harmed student borrowers, and nullify almost $27 million in outstanding loans. Stein joined 10 other state attorneys general in the action, which accused Prehired of false job placement promises, unlawful loans and abusive debt collection practices. In North Carolina, 22 individuals paid a total of $112,716,638 to Prehired, with residents potentially receiving around $1.1 million in contract cancellations.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction, led by State Superintendent Catherine Truitt announced two educators had received a prestigious national award. Ainsley VanBuskirk, a first-grade teacher at Pactolus Global School in Pitt County, and Aisa Cunningham, the principal of Pearsontown Elementary School in Durham County, were both named winners of the prestigious national Milken Educator Award and each received a $25,000 prize.

On Nov. 15, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey reinstated three fire marshal employees whom he had terminated just weeks earlier on Oct. 31. The Oct. 31 removals, which followed legislation passed removing the Fire Marshal duties from Causey’s agency, included Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor, Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Mike Williams, and fire marshal department employee Brent Heath. On the same day the terminations were made, Causey announced he was appointing Tony Bailey as chief state fire marshal and Special Agent Craig Jarman as the new deputy state fire marshal.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s office issued a press release announcing the publication of the 2022-2023 Annual Report of Charitable Solicitation Licensing. The report, covering July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, showed licensed fundraisers amassed $58,049,394 for charitable causes in the state; a substantial uptick of $10.4 million compared to the total during the same period in 2021-2022. Charities received $43,874,708 from this sum for their programs, indicating a $4.9 million increase specifically directed to charitable initiatives rather than professional fundraising and administrative expenses.

The report also showed a decline in figures reported for national fundraising campaigns involving North Carolina donors. Multi-state campaigns employing professional fundraisers garnered a total of $1,097,864,514; a decrease of $139.8 million from funds raised in 2021-2022.

There were no major updates from Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson’s office for the month of November.