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NC House speaker's chief of staff resigns

Gary D. Robertson

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 for the residential housing industry.

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 lobbyist, Jessica Hayes with the North Carolina Home Builders Association, resigned from her job Friday, according to an association executive.

The News & Observer of Raleigh reported (http://bit.ly/JLBg6D) Friday about Thomas' relationship with Hayes, 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. Hayes was the association's 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.

Association Executive Vice President Mike Carpenter called the relationship inappropriate. He said he asked for Hayes' resignation during a Friday morning meeting, and she gave it. Hayes, who didn't immediately return a message seeking comment, had worked for the group since 2008 and was the junior member of a three-person association lobbying team at the Legislature.

Tillis said 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 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 an 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.

Carpenter said Hayes told her the relationship began around January _ months after the primary work session for the two-year session ended last June. "There was no relationship during the (2011) legislative session," Carpenter said. He said he didn't know of the relationship until Thursday.

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 was 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, an unlawful gift includes food and drink but doesn't include 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. Carpenter said he also believes nothing unlawful occurred based on his interview with Hayes.

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.

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Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com

The Associated Press