Gov. Mike Easley signed into law Friday an overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules designed to end lawmakers receiving dinners, campaign donations and other perks from lobbyists.
The bill also creates a broader state ethics commission that can investigate all three branches of government, although its probes would largely be hidden from the public. Cases would be referred to other panels when credible complaints are made against judges and lawmakers.
Easley had asked for a stronger commission compared to the one that currently covers mostly executive branch officials and state board appointees. The governor appeared satisfied with the finished product approved by the House and Senate on July 27.
"While this bill will have to be refined and clarified as we go forward, it is a powerful first step at establishing clear ethical standards, oversight and enforcement for public officials," Easley said in a written statement after signing the bill without a public ceremony.
"The General Assembly has worked hard on this bill and we all must ensure that this new law is implemented efficiently and effectively," he said.
The new rules, most of which take effect in January, would ban lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, the governor, executive branch officials and high-ranking appointees, with several exceptions. Those include meals and drinks at public events for several people and travel for educational or legislative organizations.
Lobbyists also would be prevented from "bundling" campaign donations, a practice in which several campaign checks are given at a time to a candidate, sometimes after a fundraising event.
The ethics commission staff also would collect and review expanded economic disclosure statements of government officials for potential conflicts of interest, issue advisory opinions and oversee mandatory ethics training of public officials.
"We have made a significant step in building public trust," Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, said in the statement.
The ethics and lobbying overhaul took shape after House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, created a state House panel to study the issue. The move came after at least two people associated with Black were investigated for violating state lobbying laws related to their work with Scientific Games Corp. leading up to last year's lottery vote.
Earlier this year, the State Board of Elections ordered Black's campaign to forfeit $23,675 in unlawful campaign contributions. Black is appealing some of the penalties.
This week, former Rep. Michael Decker of Forsyth County pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept $50,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for switching parties, a move that helped Black share power in the House in 2003.
Republicans and a handful of House Democrats have called on him to resign from his post.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, will hold a news conference Monday in Raleigh to unveil publicly a new television advertisement critical of Black's legal troubles. The ad calls on viewers to "sign" a Web site petition telling Black to step down.