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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Scholars address ethics, legalities surrounding commissioner’s alleged $50M hush-money offer

County officials stand by their claim they had no involvement with any conversations over offering Coastal Horizons $50 million to keep quiet about The Healing Place deal. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Questions continue to circulate regarding recent accusations that the county commissioner chair allegedly offered a nonprofit $50 million in hush money.

One: Is the assertion enough for the chair to be removed — or at least compelling enough for commissioners to censure her?

READ MORE: County denies involvement with board chair’s alleged $50M hush money offer to Coastal Horizons

Two: Should the county manager, who was informed of the unproven incident, have told anyone it took place?

Scholars say answers to the questions are not always black and white. 

Two years ago, the county — on behalf of Trillium Health Resources — decided to move forward with The Healing Place out of Kentucky to operate a new substance use treatment facility, currently under construction on Medical Center Drive. It went with The Healing Place for its abstinence-based treatment program, not medication-assistance treatment (MAT) — considered the gold standard for battling addiction, one of many modalities local nonprofit Coastal Horizons utilizes. 

Coastal Horizons was under the impression it would be chosen to run the operation, as it was the one to apply for a special-use permit needed through the city for the center to be established.

CEO and president Margaret Weller-Stargell spoke candidly about her disappointment when the 40-year-old nonprofit she has led for 37 years wasn’t selected as the provider. More so, she said she felt “betrayed” by how the process went down.

CATCH UP: More Healing Place coverage here

Over the last few weeks, Weller-Stargell made it public in a letter she wrote to county manager Chris Coudriet that in July 2020 she was approached with a monetary offer from chair Julia Olson-Boseman, with former-commissioner Pat Kusek also present. Olson-Boseman allegedly suggested $50 million from the potential New Hanover County Regional Hospital sale to the nonprofit, paid in perpetuity.

Weller-Stargell said the money, which she denied, was intended to keep her concerns quiet about the switch in providers and allow the deal to go through without pushback.

Olson-Boseman has indignantly denied the exchange, telling PCD: “It’s a damn lie.”

The accusation comes as the chair endures legal battles for alleged mishandling of client funds during the operation of her law practice, which shuttered in early 2021. 

In July, Olson-Boseman was held in contempt of court for not providing financial records requested by the N.C. State Bar during an investigation into the former attorney. She allegedly transferred roughly $9,000 from her business to her personal bank account rather than to her clients’ because she said she didn’t know to whom the money belonged.

Olson-Boseman was supposed to appear before a judge on two occasions in regards to the state bar case and was handed a “motion to show cause”: Turn over financial documents by July 25 or show up to spend weekends in jail. After receiving temporary relief for an arrest order, a judge officially closed the contempt of court case Tuesday, as the state bar has received the documents and continues its examination of the case.

Additionally, Olson-Boseman is being investigated by the SBI for allegedly taking a different client’s money without services rendered.

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners — Rob Zapple, Jonathan Barfield, Deb Hays and Bill Rivenbark — have made no moves to remove or censure the chair, who is essentially “the chief executive officer” of the county. 

Zapple told WECT in July the issue was a personal one for Olson-Boseman and not one that impacted the commissioners’ work.  

State statute notes a commissioner can be removed if he or she moves out of its jurisdiction or is convicted of a felony.

There is another option: amotion. The common law court-like proceeding is not a statutory act and is often used when a board member’s conduct is inadequate to the point it “challenges the integrity of the governmental process,” UNC School of Governments Robert Joyce, who teaches public law and government, writes for the school.

The last time the county attempted to have a commissioner dismissed through amotion was almost a decade ago. In 2013, Brian Berger had been arrested for driving while impaired and drug possession and received a restraining order for domestic violence, as well stopped attending board meetings and often engaged in email tirades against county staff and commissioners.

However, a judge overturned the ruling saying the commissioners’ decision was tainted with personal bias rather than objective evidence.

UNC School of Governments Joyce writes that often “the best bet is to wait until the next election” rather than attempt to remove a member that doesn’t fall under state statute.

Olson-Boseman will not be retaking her seat on the county board after December, as she lost the primaries to Zapple and Travis Robinson who made it onto the November ballot as the Democratic candidates (Olson-Boseman switched her party to Republican shortly after losing the May primaries).

“It’s not so easy in North Carolina to remove an elected official from a local office,” confirmed Kimberly Nelson, a UNC School of Government professor of public administration and government.

“If someone has been the subject of credible accusations of improprieties, the rest of the board can pressure that member to resign,” she added. “And a lot of times, they do, especially if it looks like they’ll be convicted of a crime.”

Olson-Boseman wrote to Port City Daily Friday that no board member has approached her about resigning.

In April 2022, the five commissioners, including Olson-Boseman, signed a code of ethics — legally required of all boards statewide. Though it does not substitute for law, it establishes guidelines for their actions and behavior, which include but are not limited to:

  • Exhibiting trustworthiness
  • Using their best independent judgment to pursue the common good, while being able to consider the opinion of others
  • Remaining incorruptible, self-governing, and not subject to improper influence
  • Recognizing that individual board members are generally not allowed to act on behalf of the board but may only do so if the board specifically so authorizes because the board must take official action as a body
  • Conducting the affairs of their boards in an open and public manner

The board has the power to censure a sitting member as a stance against condoning misbehaviors. The action doesn’t carry any consequences aside from reprimand.

Port City Daily reached out to each county commissioner to ask if he or she thought Olson-Boseman was in violation of the code of ethics or if discussions were on the table to censure the chair. 

Bill Rivenbark responded he doesn’t talk to the media: “If you ever have anything positive to report, give me a call.”

Zapple, Hays and Barfield did not respond.

What about the county manager?

When news first broke by WECT and WHQR on Aug. 29 about the chair’s supposed $50 million offer, sitting commissioners told Port City Daily they were unaware of the incident (former commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White didn’t respond to request for comment).

When asked if the county knew about the allegation, a spokesperson told media outlets: “[County Manager] Chris [Coudriet] is not aware of any promise that was made to Coastal Horizons and setting aside money from the hospital sale specifically for them was never discussed by staff.”

The county later amended the statement to remove “is not aware of,” clarifying Coudriet had previously heard about the meeting.

Having served as New Hanover County’s manager since 2012, Coudriet confirmed Weller-Stargell first told him about the supposed exchange in September 2020 and again in March 2022. Yet, he never reported it to anyone because he said there was no evidence to substantiate it. 

“Neither commissioner [Olson-Boseman nor Kusek] referenced by Mrs. Weller-Stargell has ever suggested or implied to me or any other staff member that such a promise was ever made,” Coudriet wrote.

Once District Attorney Ben David learned of the accusations, he forwarded it to the prosecutor at the Conference of District Attorneys, a state agency.

“Due to the close working relationship our office has with the County Commissioners an outside prosecutor was assigned,” assistant to the district attorney Sam Dooies wrote to PCD and added no further comment could be made.

Since the allegation grabbed the attention of the DA, the question has been floated: Should the county manager have felt obligated to advise anyone about it upon first hearing the allegation two years ago?

UNC professor Nelson said not necessarily.

“It’s hearsay. If the person who told him thought it was against the law, that person should have approached law enforcement,” she said.

There is no legal standing for not reporting a crime, and in this matter, at this time, it’s unclear whether one actually occurred. Weller-Stargell told PCD she wouldn’t refer to Olson-Boseman’s alleged political promise as a “bribe,” only unethical. 

“A bribe does not have to be followed through on to be illegal,” Nelson further explained, adding she is not an attorney but specializes in political corruption. “A person soliciting a bribe is a crime even if a person doesn’t accept it. But, typically, money has to change hands to have actually been a bribe; otherwise, it’s solicitation.”

Coudriet also said he didn’t view the allegations as bribery, further confirming his reasoning for not reporting it.

“There was nothing she could provide to demonstrate that it took place,” he said of Weller-Stargell’s allegations. “At the time, she framed it as if it was an offer or perhaps a political promise — not a bribe or a quid-pro-quo.”

The New Hanover County’s personnel policies and procedures handbook does not include information on handling a situation that falls into a gray area as this. Thus, it leaves the county manager to use his best judgment in decision-making.

The county manager does adhere to a code of ethics with the International City/County Management Agency, a credentialed organization that officially recognizes local governments with a council or commissioner and manager framework.

ICMA requires managers to “be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in public and personal relationships.” One of its main edicts is to “maintain and enhance public trust and confidence in local government.”

A county spokesperson confirmed Coudriet subscribes to the ICMA Code of Ethics.

If the association finds a manager in violation of its professional code, he or she could be subject to censure, either privately or publicly, for inappropriate conduct. Based on the code of ethics, violations would have to be egregious to be considered for investigation.

It lists the example of a Buncombe County manager undergoing a multi-million-dollar kickback scheme and a former Duck County manager accused of sexual assault.

Also, the county manager answers to the board of commissioners by law. Coudriet said in 2020 — a year before Olson-Boseman’s legal issues came to light — he had no reason to question the chairwoman or Kusek.

“I had worked with them both and knew them well, and also knew that if there was something they wanted to happen, then they would have shared that with me and provided me with direction to include surety there was a majority of the board supportive of the path,” he wrote. “And that did not occur.”

UNC professor Nelson explained that in local government, county managers are likely the listening ear for many complaints, especially regarding elected officials.

“If a county manager heard something he didn’t believe and had no evidence, that’s why he didn’t share it,” she said. “Had there been evidence and it was swept under the rug, that’d be a different story.”

The $50 million purportedly on the table was part of the sale of the county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant, which didn’t legally go through until February 2021. However, in July 2020 commissioners had publicly outlined the use of its potential proceeds in draft documents through the Asset Purchase Agreement.

“At no time was the shaping of that financial framework in the months prior to her claim had anyone insinuated or directed me to include Coastal Horizons as a recipient of any of the funding,” Coudriet wrote to PCD.

“If Julia made such a statement,” Zapple told PCD last week, “she did so without having the authority … and without informing our county staff.”

As confirmed by UNC School of Government professor Carl Stenberg, a board of commissioners acts as a unified whole. Individual members do not have the authority to make decisions without the majority of the board’s support.

“That makes an allegation less credible to a county manager, too,” Nelson said. “If one person makes a promise or suggestion, he or she either did not understand how their board works, or the person he or she spoke to was mistaken or misunderstood. There’s no way for a commissioner to do that on their own in this form of government in North Carolina counties.”

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