Government watchdog files ethics complaint against powerful state lawmaker

By: - August 19, 2021 6:00 am

Rep. John Torbett

Chair of two House education committees failed to disclose his wife’s connection to charter school

Rep. John Torbett, chairman of the state’s influential House Education K-12 Committee, is the target of a Legislative Ethics Committee complaint alleging the Gaston County Republican failed to disclose that his wife serves on a charter school board that receives state funding. 

The complaint was filed this week by Bob Hall, the retired executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights and government watchdog group. 

Hall contends Torbett should have disclosed on 2020 and 2021 statements of economic interest (SEI) that his wife, Viddia Torbett, is vice-chairwoman of the board of directors of Community Public Charter School in Stanley. The school is affiliated with the Community Pentecostal Center

Viddia Torbett is also her husband’s legislative assistant. 

“The failure of Rep. [John] Torbett to disclose his wife’s position on the School’s board of directors is all the more important because Rep. [John] Torbett is now the chair of the House Committee on K-12 Education and is chair of the Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, i.e., two positions where he has significant influence over policy and funding of charter schools and public education,” Hall said in the complaint. 

Torbett was first elected to the House in 2010. He was assigned to the Education K-12 Committee and the Appropriations on Education Committee to start the current legislative session. Torbett chairs both committees. 

“You’ve got a powerful legislator with a personal bias or a personal interest in the financial solvency of a charter school, so he’s got a conflict between serving the public and serving his own personal interest,” Hall said in an interview with Policy Watch. “That ought to be disclosed if not him recusing himself from involvement in the funding of charter schools.” 

Anyone subject to the State Government Ethics Act must file an SEI prior to being appointed, employed or elected, by April 15 of each year. That covers roughly 6,500 people, including appointed officials and elected members of the General Assembly. 

The ethics statute was adopted to ensure that elected and appointed state agency officials “exercise their authority honestly and fairly, free from impropriety, threats, favoritism, and undue influence.” 

In 2013 and 2014, Torbett correctly answered “no” to a question on the SEI long form that asked: “During the preceding calendar year, were you, your spouse or members of your immediate family a director, officer, governing board member, employee, independent contractor, or registered lobbyist of a nonprofit corporation or organization operating in the State primarily for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, public health and safety, or educational purposes?” 

Torbett left blank another question that asks filers to provide a “brief description” of the nature of the business if it does business with the state or receives state funding, which was appropriate because the charter school did not yet exist.  

Starting in 2015, Torbett began to file shorter SEI “No Change Forms” affirming that responses in the prior year’s SEI “continue to be true, correct, and complete to the best of my knowledge and belief.” 

Torbett again filed “No Change Forms” in 2020 and 2021, but his situation had changed: Community Public Charter School opened in 2019, and Viddia Corbett had joined its board of directors. 

“The proper thing would be for him to declare that he has a conflict, a personal role in charter schools because of his wife’s status, and leave it to the others in the General Assembly to develop the best policy for the public’s interest,” Hall said. 

Policy Watch left a message for Torbett with his wife, Viddia, on Wednesday. He did not return the call. 

Viddia Torbett

Hall noted in his complaint that other lawmakers understand the information requested. He provided a copy of former State Sen. Harry Brown’s 2020 SEI disclosing his wife’s involvement in two Onslow County nonprofits. The Onslow Women’s Center received a one-time state appropriation, Brown disclosed, and the Pretrial Resource Center has a state contract with the Department of Public Safety.  

This week’s complaint against Torbett isn’t the first Hall has filed against the lawmaker. 

Last October, Hall filed a complaint alleging that Torbett and Josh Dobson, a former state representative who was elected state Commissioner of Labor last November, were inappropriately collecting thousands of dollars from the General Assembly for lodging in Raleigh even though their housing was being paid for by campaign committees.  

The “double-dipping,” Hall said, was a violation of the Legislative Ethics Committee’s Guideline 11, which prohibits lawmakers from collecting per diem payments from the government for lodging expenses paid by another entity. 

“However, in a bizarre turnabout after it received my complaint against Rep. Torbett and another legislator,” Hall wrote to the Legislative Ethics Committee, “the Committee met in late October 2020 and voted to rescind Guideline 11 and then dismissed my complaint.” 

In 2020, there were seven complaints filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee. All seven were dismissed, according to the committee’s annual report. 

The committee is co-chaired by Sen. Norman Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County and Rep. Grey Mills, a Republican from Iredell County. 

The State Ethics Commission, which interprets and enforces the State Government Ethics Act, does not discuss or acknowledge receipt of specific complaints to protect the integrity of the process. 

Officials, however, do answer general questions about the process and the obligations of people required to file SEIs. 

“It’s important that people respond and disclose information that’s requested on the form,” said Kathleen Edwards, the Commission’s executive director. “To an extent, a question on the form says to list XYZ, you should do that … and if you have questions, that’s why we’re here.” 

The charter school where Torbett’s wife serves on the board has drawn national criticism because it received a $250,000 Charter School Program grant intended to help disadvantaged students. 

Carol Burris, executive director for the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes charter schools, wrote about the school and others in a Washington Post column. Burris criticized them for their lack of diversity. 

“During 2019, the year in which the school was awarded its Charter School Program grant of $250,000, 95 percent of the school’s students were White, compared with its integrated public school district, Gaston, where only 53 percent of the students are White,” Burris wrote. 

John Torbett has received criticism this year as well after introducing House Bill 324, which would restrict what students could be taught about the nation’s racial past. 

Conservatives have embraced the controversial bill, arguing that it would prevent teachers from indoctrinating students with liberal ideology. Progressives oppose it, saying it’s important that children learn hard truths about systemic racism, slavery and Jim Crow laws.  

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.