Timing Key For Ex-Aide

Posted March 8, 2004 at 6:58pm

Rep. Charles Taylor’s former top aide sought a lobbying contract with a North Carolina nonprofit group more than two months before he publicly announced he was leaving the North Carolina Republican’s payroll, according to new disclosures by the organization.

Roger France, the former aide who is now employed by the Livingston Group, originally sent a draft contract on Nov. 24, 2003, to a senior staff official at AdvantageWest, the state-created economic development commission, an AdvantageWest spokesman said Monday. France did not publicly reveal he was leaving Taylor’s staff until on or about Jan. 28.

France’s spin through the Congressional revolving door was the subject of a March 4 article in Roll Call that cited a Feb. 10 e-mail from France while he was still on the House payroll discussing a $60,000 proposal to represent AdvantageWest. Both France and AdvantageWest officials refused to specify the exact date that the discussions began and both implied that the negotiations were within a few weeks of France’s official departure on Feb. 13.

The new information about the timeframe of the discussions changes the dynamics of the situation. Legal experts suggested that rather than just raising conflict-of-interest problems for France, it could now be viewed as the former staffer seeking a financial reward for an official act.

In fact, France began talks with AdvantageWest very shortly after legislation —sponsored by Taylor and shepherded through the House by France — benefiting AdvantageWest was enacted. France’s Nov. 24 proposal also came on the same day that he participated in a key meeting that ensured AdvantageWest would control a $750,000 appropriation earmarked by Taylor.

AdvantageWest, which had never used an outside lobbyist in its 10-year history, will be seeking millions of dollars in appropriations over the next decade to implement a Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

Following the Roll Call story, AdvantageWest board members asked for an internal review of the matter. An examination of computer files and e-mails, some of which have apparently been deleted, according to a group spokesman, show that France sent a draft lobbying contract on Nov. 24 to Betty Huskins, AdvantageWest’s vice president for public affairs and corporate development.

“France created the document,” said AdvantageWest spokesman Mark Owen. “He approached us with a written document on Nov. 24” that reflected the same terms as the proposal discussed in the Feb. 10 e-mail that was obtained by Roll Call.

Owen said that France and Huskins had a conversation about the idea sometime during the previous week in November. “France initiated the conversation,” Owen said. Huskins was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

In a written statement issued Monday, France did not dispute the Nov. 24 date.

“The President signed the Interior Appropriations bill into law on November 10th, 2003, PL 108-108,” the statement said. “After that date, AdvantageWest had no pending business before the House.

“No discussions occurred between Advantage West and myself before that date, and discussions after that date were of the ‘what if’ category.

“Nothing of value was solicited, given or exchanged between AdvantageWest and me. No contract was ever signed,” France said.

Owen said that Huskins did not inform anyone else at AdvantageWest about the Nov. 24 offer until February.

“After he announced publicly his resignation, but while he was still on the staff, he then came back to us and said ‘What do you think?’” Owen said.

AdvantageWest officials decided to pull the plug on the lobbying deal with France but gave different versions of the timing of that decision. Owen and the group’s executive director, Dale Carroll, had told Roll Call that the proposal was being considered Feb. 24. On March 3 — the day before the full AdvantageWest board meeting — Owen said that an executive committee meeting earlier that day had decided against going forward with the proposal.

But following the board meeting on March 4, Owen told the Asheville Citizen-Times that the decision to halt discussions actually took place at an executive committee meeting Feb. 20. He said that neither he nor Carroll were aware of that decision when they were interviewed by Roll Call after that date.

Taylor’s press secretary did not return a phone call Monday.

But Taylor told the Asheville Citizen-Times that he was unaware of any conversations France might have had with AdvantageWest before leaving his office.

“People who know me know that while I listen to all sides of a situation, I make up my own mind,” Taylor told the paper. “Anyone who is paying any lobbyist to try and sway me on an issue is wasting their money.”

Several legal experts, who declined to be identified by name for this story, said the timing of France’s contact, which was well before he had given any public indication he was leaving and very shortly after he worked on legislative issues benefiting AdvantageWest, raised serious questions.

“This raises an issue of whether he got something of value in return for an official act, namely his assistance on an appropriations,” said one white-collar criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C.

“The timing is important. If somebody at the Department of Justice was to look at this, that would be an important fact,” he said, noting that situations like this hinge almost completely on the facts of the case.