Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gravely Accountability to Taxpayers? Not So Fast...

$50,000 in taxpayer money to entertain sailors and wine and dine Wilmington's social elite? Sure - no problem. Accounting for where exactly that money went, what it was used for, and if any of it is left over? Good luck with that.

The issue is not with the US Navy; nor is this in any way a commentary against our fair city being honored with commissioning a new Naval Destroyer. This is about the political implications at the local level regarding this event.

It bears repeating, that Louise McColl, Chair of the Gravely Commissioning Committee, and incidentally campaign manager to both the head of our city government, Mayor Bill Saffo; and county government, County Commission Chair Jason Thompson; was easily granted $25,000 each from both governments for entertainment purposes related to the commissioning, which occurred this past Saturday, November 20. In the wake of this event, it has proven quite difficult to find out exactly what taxpayer money was used specifically for.

In an email to county and city leaders, your humble blogger made an official request for a complete accounting of  what taxpayer money was used for:

Mr. Thompson & Mr. Saffo:
Since both of you saw it fitting and necessary to give 50,000 in taxpayer dollars to your campaign manager for the Gravely commissioning, I am formally requesting a line item statement of all expenditures that said money was used for, along with receipts; and a statement of how much money is left over, and what happens to it. 
I assume that your respective managers had the foresight to request that such records be kept for auditing purposes. Taxpayers and citizens are entitled by law to know where every dime of their money goes.
Thank you.
Mr. Thompson, apparently irritated by such a request, responded as such:
You are right. There is a process prescribed by law to get said information. I suggest you follow it. If you need assistance with said laws please advise. 
 After a couple of emails parrying back and forth, Thompson had this to say:
Actually we gave the 25k to the friends of the battleship nonprofit. Louise McColl didn't get anything from us.
According to county documents, this simply isn't the case. The County Commission agenda item specifically references the USS Gravely Commissioning Committee was to receive the $25,000, as seen here:

Not only that, the funds used were contingency funds, set aside for emergencies and so forth. Apparently the official definition for "contingency" has been expanded to include pub crawls, steak dinners, dancing, mini-golf, movie passes, and ballroom galas.

After being confronted with clear evidence that it was the USS Gravely, not the Battleship North Carolina that received the funding, Thompson re-stated his position with:
Where does it say we paid Louise McColl? Until you ask or comment about something in the world of reality I for one am done discussing this topic with you. 
The animosity toward a lone citizen merely requesting that taxpayer money being used for an outside function be accounted for, is quite apparent. It seems that the chosen few inside the well-protected political fold can easily obtain subsidies from taxpayers; and subsequently be guarded against having ever to account for what exactly that money was used for. Unfortunately, the law is on the side of the hidden political interest - not the people. Greg Roney of the General Assembly Research Division, explains the law in an email:
An organization which is recognized by the IRS as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code must make its federal tax returns available for public inspection. The federal tax returns would include information about expenditures. The organization does not have to provide public access to its books and records. The IRS has a helpful discussion on public disclosure at the following web site:,,id=96430,00.html. If the organization is incorporated in North Carolina under the North Carolina Nonprofit Corporation Act, then North Carolina law requires disclosure to members of the organization.
The local news media has been silent on the entire issue, until WECT reported yesterday:

WECT was referred to Louise McColl, the committee chair. While she was not required to report back on the committee's spending, after repeated media requests, she notified the New Hanover County budget department that she would provide documentation.
From: Louise McColl []
Sent: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 9:16 AM
To: Griffin, Cam
Subject: Re: gravely
It will be at least 3 weeks. I will let you know what the 25000 went toward. Have them contact me/Dave
Phone calls to McColl were not immediately returned. Late Tuesday night she replied that she would not be available for an interview until all invoices had been returned. She briefly discussed the large expense that putting on such an event incurred and promised that her company, McColl & Associates did not "make a penny" off of the event.
Until McColl's itemized budget comes in, no one can be sure, specifically, which activities and expenditures public money was used for. At her city council presentation, McColl listed a variety of activities such as fishing, the pub crawl and volleyball for the sailors. However, various other expenses involving transportation, food and security could also be on the list.
Full Article:

Unfortunately, McColl has the law on her side by remaining silent. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the committee's expenditures do not have to be disclosed to the public. However, this law should absolutely not apply to taxpayer money. If public money is given to an organization of any type, the public should have absolutely every right and opportunity to see where every single dime of their money goes. At least one member of the NC General Assembly has expressed interest in taking a closer look at this law, and possibly changing or modifying it to allow for full disclosure of taxpayer funds.

In her email response reported above, it looks as if McColl is only planning to account for $25,000 of the $50,000 that she was given, and reluctantly at that. Organizations and committees should be not only willing, but absolutely forthcoming with their books regarding taxpayer money. It's the least they can do to since the good taxpayers have funded their operations. Citizens being treated harshly or vilified for demanding transparency and accountability regarding what their money is used for is completely unacceptable.

UPDATE: In an email from New Hanover County Manager Bruce Shell, I was told that the county has requested an accounting for their $25,000 portion given to McColl, and that I will be copied on that once it is received. No word still from the City of Wilmington. WWAY has now joined the fray:


  1. Keep on rockin' it brotha. 2 thumbs up.

  2. Keep up your great work! A "thumbs up" for Wilmington Watcher and an "up yours" to the politicians reaching into our pockets...


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