Ethics officials must take a close look at Superintendent Mark Johnson’s iPad purchase

By: - September 5, 2018 5:00 am

If you missed it last week and care at all about the subject of ethics in government, please take a few minutes to read Policy Watch reporter Billy Ball’s investigative report on the recent $6 million iPad purchase that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson completed earlier this summer.

As Ball reports in damning detail, both the purchase itself and a two-day meeting that took place last fall between Johnson, a small group of state officials and Apple Computer representatives, raise significant questions of propriety and legality.

Among the key findings in the investigation:

  • Last October, Johnson, along with state Representatives Jason Saine and Michael Fraley, state Senator Michael Lee, state Senate staffer, Eric Naisbitt (who worked for Senator Chad Barefoot), Harnett County Schools Superintendent Aaron Fleming, Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Moody, Craven County Schools Superintendent Meghan Doyle and UNC School of Education Dean Fouad-Abd-El-Khalick, attended a two-day “executive briefing” with Apple reps at the company’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. During their stay in California, all of the officials, except for Superintendent Doyle, accepted gifts from the company in the form of transportation, lodging and meals, including dinner at an upscale Silicon Valley restaurant.
  • While a spokesperson for Johnson denied that there was any discussion of purchasing iPads during the gathering, the two-day event included a presentation on “literacy and the iPad” and “why mobile matters.” The meeting agenda also included a tour of the company’s store.
  • This is not the first time tech companies courted North Carolina officials. Both Google and Apple have spent thousands of dollars in recent years on luxury hotels and upscale dinners for state lawmakers with budget authority.
  • The purchase that followed this year took place outside of established procedures and protocols in that Johnson bypassed: a) the normal approval process that runs through state’s Department of Information Technology, and b) DPI’s four-year “refresh” cycle for purchasing devices used to comply with the state’s “Read to Achieve” law.
  • Some school districts do not even use Apple products for the purpose Johnson intended them and have sent them back to DPI asking for money instead.

North Carolina ethics laws make it unlawful for state officials to accept gifts from vendors and/or companies that lobby state government. Apple, of course, does both. And while there are a host of exceptions and somewhat different rules for different officials, the gifts in question raise troubling questions.

Johnson said he could accept Apple’s largesse because it was a gift to DPI – that is, it merely, in effect, served to reimburse the agency for expenses it would have incurred in putting him up and feeding him in California. Whether the state would have been billeting the Superintendent at a stylish “boutique hotel” and buying him dinner at an upscale eatery that features $70 per person meals, however, seems at least open to question.

The only readily evident and plausible exception under which state legislators could have lawfully accepted gifts like those provided specifies it must accompany their attendance at an “educational meeting.” But, as Ball reports, there are real questions as to whether the Apple-sponsored gathering really met the statutory definition for such a meeting.

There seems to be even less doubt that the two county superintendents violated the law. A local government ethics expert at the UNC School of Government told Ball they cannot lawfully accept gifts from any vendor that has done business with their district or may do so in the future. Fleming and Moody acknowledged that both of their districts have purchased Apple products in recent years.

Ball also reported that the Apple meeting is part of a national pattern of tech companies wooing state and local officials with control over public school purse strings. Google, for instance, hosted Saine in even more luxurious accommodations just days before he joined the Apple-sponsored gathering, as well as in 2015 (along with then-state Rep. Mike Hager). In 2015, Apple hosted Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Rep. Craig Horn and ex-state Sen. Dan Soucek.

Add to all of this the strange and unusual way the purchase was handled by Johnson (that is, without any competitive bidding or any input from state technology officials or local school officials in districts not using Apple products) and the whole thing is rendered that much more troubling.

The bottom line: As multiple good government advocates told Ball, the iPad deal and the attendant meetings look and smell bad and quite possibly violate state law. Officials at the state Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics enforcement, the state Auditor’s office and the General Assembly’s ethics committees should examine the matter right away. What’s more, if the wining and dining of the kind Apple showered on officials doesn’t violate state gift bans, the law should be strengthened as soon as possible to make sure that it does.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.