- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Advocacy groups filed ethics complaints Monday against North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina over six-figure stock payouts they received while in office from an online mortgage broker.

The complaints followed an Associated Press report last month revealing that the two Carolinas politicians were granted restricted stock shares while board members at Charlotte-based LendingTree. Both resigned shortly after taking office, which should have rendered the shares worthless. But the company’s board gave them the payouts anyway. Neither official fully described the transactions on their ethics forms.

McCrory and Sanford, both Republicans, have previously denied any wrongdoing.

Progress North Carolina Action, a left-leaning nonprofit group in Raleigh, filed its complaint against McCrory with the N.C. Ethics Commission. The complaint against Sanford was filed with the U.S. House Ethics Committee by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-partisan watchdog group.

Asked about the complaint at an event Monday, McCrory said it would be “inappropriate” to respond to “a left-wing, very politicized group.”

“I’ve not had a chance to see those and my focus is on creating jobs,” McCrory said.

Sanford did not respond to messages Monday from AP.

AP reported Dec. 16 that Sanford resigned from the LendingTree board effective May 16, 2013, the day after he was sworn in to Congress. A month later, on June 19, the board retroactively vested his $108,539 in restricted shares, backdating the transaction to the date of his resignation, according to company officials.

Anne Weismann, the interim executive director of CREW, said the payout likely violated a ban on members of Congress accepting gifts exceeding $350 from non-family members. Sanford didn’t detail the transaction on his ethic forms, which Weismann said should prompt a House Ethics Committee investigation.

Weismann said her group believed the retroactive vesting “represents a gift to him with a value of over $100,000. Given that LendingTree has lobbyists that lobby on issues that are likely to be before Rep. Sanford, we think this is exactly the type of situation that the gift rules were designed to prevent.”

AP, reported that McCrory received more than $185,000 in cash and stock from LendingTree in early 2013, eclipsing his $139,590 governor’s salary that year. Most came in form of 10,063 restricted stock shares that were vested the day before McCrory’s resignation from the company.

McCrory also received $14,438 in fees and cash dividends from LendingTree. Though state ethics forms direct officials to disclose sources of stock dividends and fees exceeding $5,000, McCrory’s staff says the governor wasn’t required to disclose his cash compensation from LendingTree.

The governor also didn’t disclose his “business association” with LendingTree, even though he remained on the board for nearly a month after his inauguration. A spokesman for McCrory has said the wording of the question was unclear.

The complaint against McCrory said the governor was supposed to disclose conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest. Instead, McCrory’s “selective disclosure, omissions and incomplete disclosure” damages public trust and raises questions about “the true origin, purpose or intent of compensation, gifts, favors, appointments and executive regulatory decisions.”

McCrory’s chief legal counsel, Bob Stephens, said in a statement Monday that the governor was being “attacked for work and compensation he earned prior to entering office.”

McCrory was sworn in Jan. 5, 2013 - 25 days before the early vesting of his stock and 26 days before his resignation. LendingTree also reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission it paid McCrory $4,375 in directors’ fees for serving on its board through the end of January 2013.

McCrory later appointed a majority of the members on the N.C. Banking Commission, which regulates mortgage brokers. LendingTree has faced scrutiny from regulators in other states.

The ethics complaint also questioned McCrory’s ownership of stock in Duke Energy, where he worked for 29 years before becoming governor. AP reported last year that McCrory held the Duke stock while his administration made regulatory decisions involving his former employer, including appointing utility commissioners who set electricity rates.

In light of the massive coal ash spill from a Duke plant into the Dan River on Feb. 2, the complaint alleges that “any executive government action or inaction” McCrory took in regard to Duke would impact the value of Duke stock, including his own.

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Associated Press reporter Gary D. Robertson contributed from Raleigh. Weiss reported from Charlotte.

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Follow Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

Follow Weiss at Twitter.com/mitchsweiss

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