‘Resolved’ but still relevant? Tim Moore appears to sidestep another potential scandal

Experts say lawsuit over House Speaker’s sexual affair probably won’t matter like it would have in the past

By: - July 5, 2023 12:33 pm
Speaker Tim Moore at the House podium

Speaker Tim Moore presides over the N.C. House in a June session. (Photo: NCGA video screengrab)

This week North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) quietly resolved a lawsuit over his relationship with another man’s wife, making it the latest in a long series of personal and political scandals Moore has managed to sidestep.

The suit, filed last month, reignited questions about the Cleveland County Republican’s ethics history, his larger political ambitions, and intra-party GOP tensions. It is hardly the only instance in which Moore’s melding of his personal, political and professional lives has raised eyebrows.

While a sexual affair may have doomed political careers in previous eras, state political experts say that in the current political environment, this latest scandal is unlikely to derail Moore, who is widely expected to seek higher office.

“In this day and age of partisan sorting, partisan tribalism and loyalty, political party identification is so intense,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of political science and history at Catawba College. “I don’t see anybody who is identifying as Republican necessarily going off and voting Democratic on even this kind of an issue.”

“I don’t see it hitting like it would have 30, 40 or 50 years ago,” Bitzer said. “The lanes of personal morality have expanded to incorporate more and more of what should be questionable behavior. As if, you know, ‘If they’re doing it, that’s their business.’”

Scott Lassiter, a Republican Wake County Soil and Water board member, filed suit last month claiming his wife Jamie Liles Lassiter’s three-year affair with Moore ruined their marriage. Jamie Lassister, who leads the state Conference of Clerks of Superior Court, said she has been separated from her husband for years and they are nearing a final divorce. Moore, who admits to having an ongoing “casual” and “sporadic” relationship with Jamie Lassiter, said that was his understanding.

The suit also alleged Moore used his political power to prolong the affair and to have sex with others seeking political favor, including in group sex scenarios. Moore strongly denied that and had threatened a countersuit over it.

Blurring the lines

For North Carolina political observers, the Moore/Lassiter affair recalled a 2017 incident  in which Moore helped his one-time fianceé receive special consideration for a high-ranking state job. Moore, who was then in a relationship with the woman, had his legislative office forward her résumé and backed her hiring for two state positions.

Ultimately, she was hired to oversee the prosecution of financial crimes, a position created by the General Assembly through the budget process and that originated in the House version of the budget that year. As House Speaker, Moore would have wielded power over the inclusion of that line item.

Moore’s history of blurring ethical lines dates back much further.

Moore’s regular practice of directing millions in state dollars to pet projects in his home county of around 100,000 people has been criticized even by fellow Republicans, who say state funds could be better used elsewhere.

In the 2018 state budget, Moore’s home county of Cleveland got more than a million dollars in grants and funding, including $500,000 to host the American Legion Baseball World Series, an amateur baseball event held there without such funding since 2011.

Moore has also used the budget process to create rare condition-free grants that benefit campaign contributors and those working on his political campaigns. In 2016, Newsline reported on a last-minute budget provision that gave $1.5 million to Moore’s hometown of Kings Mountain, home to just over 11,000 people, for a water and sewer upgrade/dam repair project. Moore’s campaign treasurer and at least four campaign contributors lived on Moss Lake, the area that would benefit from the repair.

Moore’s budget largesse toward Kings Mountain has also directly benefited his private law practice there, which received a state-approved $62,000 development grant for expansion in 2012, a year of steep state budget cuts. The move led to warnings to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest involving his law practice — advice Moore has not always heeded.

Moore’s law practice itself has frequently been the subject of ethics concerns. While Moore has been cleared in instances in which he’s been investigated, some questionable connections have left a lingering impression that those doing business with Moore frequently benefit politically.

In 2012, the North Carolina Bail Agents Association paid Moore’s more than $10,000 for work involving the state Department of Insurance. Later that year the legislature gave the association a monopoly in providing required bail bond training.

As an attorney, Moore also represented developers of a resort casino near Kings Mountain that benefited the Catawba Indian Nation, which is based just across the state line in South Carolina. As Newsline reported in 2020, the tribe had to navigate tough political waters at the state and federal level to get the project off the ground. It also faced a lawsuit from North Carolina’s own Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which already operates two casinos in the state and alleged improper political influence in the project.

A rendering of the Catawba Two Kings resort

Moore has also been repeatedly accused, sometimes by fellow Republicans and conservative political appointees, of meddling in the chancellor selection process at campuses across the UNC System — and seeking such positions for himself.

In 2019 Moore had to address persistent rumors he would seek the UNC System presidency, even as members of the UNC Board of Governors, political appointees of the Republican majority of which Moore is a leader, said they believed he would be good candidate for the position.

In 2020, multiple members of the East Carolina University Board of Trustees said Moore was seeking the chancellorship there. Members of the UNC Board of Governors did not deny that but strongly criticized trustees for discussing it.

Last year Holly Grange, a former state representative and member of the UNC-Wilmington Board of Trustees, said she was removed from the board because she refused to back Moore’s preferred candidate in the chancellor search for that campus. Moore’s preferred candidate, his personal friend and former chief of staff Clayton Sommers, didn’t end up with the job. But a bill was filed in the House to replace Grange before her term on the board expired.

Does it matter?

Moore is currently serving a record fifth term as speaker of the State House. From his aborted foray into a U.S. House race in 2021, a concentration on U.S./Mexico border issues and a trip to Ukraine in April of this year, state political experts say it’s obvious his ambitions go beyond Raleigh.

“I think that’s been obvious for a while now,” said Chris Cooper, professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University and director of the Public Policy Institute. “We’ve seen the kind of moves that say he’s looking for that right opportunity.”

In politics, at the state and national level, ruling with a heavy hand — including securing pork barrel projects for the home district, maintaining close business connections with people who may want political favors, and helping secure jobs for allies, friends and lovers — isn’t uncommon. Republicans and Democrats alike have made it all but standard procedure from Raleigh to Washington.

Professor Chris Cooper – Photo: WCU

But a sex scandal, particularly among Republicans with strong ties to and support from Christian conservatives, has traditionally been a different matter.

When former President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment in 1998, Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Livington — then the incoming Speaker of the U.S. House — became embroiled in his own extramarital sex scandal.

Livingston’s predecessor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, had been having an extramarital affair with his legislative aide — one of a series of affairs to which he now admits. But that wasn’t common knowledge until years after Gingrich spearheaded political attacks on Clinton for covering up his affair. Livingston’s successor, Dennis Hastert, would years later be convicted for financial crimes as a part of a coverup related to his sexual abuse of teenage boys.

North Carolina Democrats John Edwards and Cal Cunningham were famously felled by their own sex scandals, ending their ambitions for higher office.

There are a few important differences in the Moore-Lassiter affair.

First, Moore is himself long divorced. While some Christian conservatives may take issue with his conducting a casual and sporadic sexual affair outside of marriage, to many that is different and less objectionable than would be the case if he were still married.

The alienation of affection lawsuit, made possible under a law that still exists in just six states, came as part of the Lassiters’ ongoing and contentious separation and divorce. While Scott Lassiter accused Moore of mixing sex and political favors, his legal filing provided no evidence. Moore’s supporters — in the General Assembly, in political circles and among the voters in his largely safe district — are not likely to abandon him on the basis of this affair, Cooper said.

“If you can play the part, I think people will read what they want to read into politicians, particularly when it comes to ethics,” Cooper said. “Ronald Reagan never went to church. But he was sure good at getting the Christian right on his side.”

The way the Republican Party itself has changed in just the last decade is also important to consider.

Christian conservatives are still a powerful constituency in the Republican party at the state and national level. But political experts said the presidency of Donald Trump and his continued high level of support in the run for the Republican nomination in 2024 shows GOP voters are largely willing to overlook divorces, affairs, sex scandals and all manner of behavior that would once have been considered disqualifying.

“I think we need to look at parties as kind of umbrellas,” Bitzer said. “And there are certainly different factions within that umbrella. And the role of social evangelical conservativism is very strong within the North Carolina Republican Party. But I think that it is certainly, you know, one aspect to a broader tent of ideas.”

The state GOP’s tent is now broad enough for Moore, one of its top leaders, to conduct a casual sexual relationship with another man’s wife while Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the front-runner for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination, condemns moral decay from the pulpit of conservative Christian churches across the state.

Robinson’s silence on the Moore-Lassiter affair speaks to the broader willingness of conservatives — even conservative Christians — to look away from distasteful aspects of a politician’s personal life if they believe it will lead to larger political victories, Bitzer said.

Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawaba College, courtesy photo

“If Tim Moore is able to, you know, explain the situation that he is in and probably still say, and ‘I attend church every Sunday morning,’ I think that checks the box.” Bitzer said.

In a way, Cooper said, it’s a return to a long-time American political norm. Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all conducted extramarital affairs in an environment in which discussing it was considered by the press and public alike to be distasteful and not relevant to their positions.

“We went through this period of ‘family values’ and ‘character questions,’” Cooper said. “But there does seem to be this willingness now to overlook a lot if someone is politically effective.” 

“Go along-to-get along”

The recent example of former North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn is instructive, Bitzer said.

During the young Republican’s swift ascent to becoming the youngest member of Congress, Cawthorn positioned himself as a strong Christian conservative and champion of traditional family values. During his one tumultuous term, supporters were willing to dismiss multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment, a marriage that ended in divorce after just 8 months and even a video of Cawthorn, before he came to office, appearing naked on top of another man in a hotel room.

But what really brought Cawthorn down, Cooper said, was his challenging and criticizing more powerful North Carolina Republicans — including Moore.

In 2021 Cawthorn decided to jump districts, moving from his 11th district to running in a newly created 13th that many thought was custom-made for a congressional run by Moore. While never naming Moore specifically, Cawthorn said he decided to run in the new district because otherwise an “establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican will prevail there.”

That move — along with comments about Republican politicians in Washington doing cocaine and going to orgies, Cooper said — made Cawthorn more a liability than an asset to the GOP.

“I think if he just stayed in the 11th all time, he’d still be in Congress,” Cooper said.

Bitzer largely agreed.

“I think when it comes down to brass tacks, it’s all about, ‘Can a political party, either capture or retain their political power?’ And they will make deals and allow for variation within their party, as long as it is not challenged.”

“I think what Cawthorn was trying to do was to, perhaps challenge more the organization of the Republican Party, and the Republican Party said, ‘You need to pay your dues. And, you know, you will not have as much influence as you think you have.’”

By contrast, Moore, over his long career, has had many fewer public dust-ups with fellow Republicans, even when provoked. If politics is war by other means, Moore has demonstrated the ability to keep his powder dry and avoid the hills on which he is not willing to die.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic Moore — along Gov. Roy Cooper and state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — encouraged North Carolinians to take the newly available vaccine. Lt. Gov. Robinson, then a political neophyte known for explosive and divisive political diatribes, was captured on video telling a conservative crowd it was not the job of politicians to tell people to get vaccinated. Those doing so should be voted out of office, Robinson said.

Rather than have a public fight with Robinson over the issue, Moore and Berger drew him closer — eventually giving him the spot responding to the governor’s State of the State address that Bitzer and Cooper agree cemented him as the GOP front-runner in next year’s gubernatorial race.

“I think that that showed the coalescing of the leadership with who they now perceive as their gubernatorial front runner,” Bitzer said. “And that’s where they’ve made peace with each other.”

Robinson’s current silence on the Moore-Lassiter affair may seem conspicuous to those who have heard him preach a return to traditional Christian and family values, Bitzer said. But it is probably politically savvy.

“The various tides of political power and political coalescing, they can shift with the wind,” Bitzer said.

Moore’s powerful role in the state’s redistricting process, which can change the political fates of even long-established Republicans, may also serve to discourage criticism from fellow GOP politicians.

“When you challenge the existing organization or power structure, you can find out why that’s a bad idea in redistricting,” Cooper said. “We have seen that happen.”

A shifting of “morality politics”

That doesn’t mean the GOP leaders have abandoned Christianity and conservative religious values as a tool, Bitzer said. They’re simply choosing to wield it differently.

“I think it’s just a shifting within that morality politics to things like trans rights and everything associated with that,” Bitzer said. “But personal morality issues have kind of taken a backseat to political power and the acquisition and maintenance of it.”

“It’s kind of almost social libertarianism,” Bitzer said. “Until the issues and the motivators, like LGBT issues and especially trans issues come about. I think that those have become the new culture wars. But this idea of marriage fidelity? That is maybe a little more wide open.”

Republicans seem to have embraced that a lot more effectively than Democrats, Cooper said, who still show a willingness to abandon their political leaders or candidates over unflattering issues in their personal lives. Democratic candidates themselves also seem more willing to concede when confronted with those issues, Cooper said. He pointed to Cal Cunningham, the Democrat who challenged Republican Sen. Thom Tillis for his U.S. Senate seat.

When details of Cunningham’s extramarital affair came to light as he was campaigning in 2020, some national political observers predicted he’d be elected anyway. Instead, Cooper said, he essentially retreated from campaigning. Democratic voters, already disappointed by the sex scandal, didn’t show up in sufficient numbers for him on election day. Tillis retained his Senate seat.

Moore hasn’t retreated in the face of the Lassiter affair becoming public, Cooper said — and Republicans don’t want him to.

“It’s like the Republicans got the memo that politics is ultimately about power,” Cooper said. “And the Democrats just didn’t check the mail that day.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.