Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com
Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

State Politics

GOP lawmakers press impeachment probe of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall

June 28, 2017 06:05 PM

RALEIGH

A Republican state lawmaker’s insistence that North Carolina is illegally commissioning some noncitizens as notaries has escalated into debate about whether to impeach a statewide executive officeholder for the first time in more than a century.

An N.C. House committee Wednesday backed a resolution sought by Republican Rep. Chris Millis of Hampstead requesting an investigation of Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall to see if impeachment proceedings for malfeasance are warranted.

If the full House approves the resolution, a 15-member select committee will be established and authorized to investigate. The committee, made up of nine Republicans and six Democrats, would be charged with determining if there is sufficient evidence of misconduct to initiate proceedings to remove her from office.

No statewide executive officeholder has been impeached since Gov. William Holden in 1870. Millis said nonpartisan legislative staff has studied those 19th-century proceedings to prepare for the new process.

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“There’s clear and convincing evidence against the secretary,” Millis said, contending that she has ignored the law, exceeded her authority and undermined public confidence in her office.

Marshall released a statement calling it a “political attack.”

“I strongly oppose today’s House Rules Committee resolution and I reject Representative Millis’ claim that any state or federal laws were broken by this department,” she said.

Millis first raised the issue in a news conference he held in March, saying records he reviewed showed more than 320 people over nine years had been improperly commissioned as notaries public. At the time, he called on Marshall to resign.

She refused, saying Millis didn’t understand the law or the facts involved.

Marshall, a former state senator, has been in office as secretary of state since 1996, when she became the first woman to hold North Carolina statewide executive office.

Millis, a third-term civil engineer, accuses Marshall of violating state and federal law by issuing the commissions, saying it amounts to illegally conferring a public benefit on an ineligible recipient. He also contends that Marshall’s policy has been “clandestine” and “hidden from public view.”

Notaries public are authorized by the state to verify signatures and administer oaths.

Deputy Secretary of State Haley Haynes told the committee that the office accepts three kinds of federal documentation to qualify as a notary: permanent residency cards, employee authorization forms and visas. Haynes said the office does not accept proof of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival temporary protection, as Millis alleged. DACA is a program started by the Obama administration to protect immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Haynes said a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1984 made it improper to make citizenship a requirement to receive notary commissions. Federal law was rewritten in 2005 to require those qualified to reside legally in the United States.

Millis contends those federal clearances don’t allow conferring of a public benefit, which he says includes notary commissions.

“We feel like this is politics,” said Michael Arnold, a senior adviser to Marshall. He added that the state auditor and the state Department of Justice have reviewed the practice.

“We are administering appropriately within federal and state guidelines,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Knightdale said it was clear that Millis had already made up his mind without waiting for the results of an investigation. Jackson tried to block the resolution vote.

“It’s extremely controversial, not the kind of thing we should be doing end of session,” Jackson said. “These are criminal allegations against a well-respected member of the Council of State. I just don’t think we should be going into this lightly. I don’t think it’s fair to Secretary Marshall.”

Rep. John Blust, a veteran Republican lawmaker from Greensboro, cautiously sided with his party, with a warning.

“I’ll support an investigation,” Blust said. “I’m going to need something that meets a pretty high standard and proves substantial evidence before I’m going to go anywhere beyond just an investigation. An investigation could restore credibility. I’m not pre-judging this in any way.”

But Blust said if there is an unwarranted attempt to move beyond an investigation, “I’m not going to be happy about it.”

The House Rules Committee voted 20 to 10 along party lines to approve the resolution and send it to the full House.

News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s response

“I strongly oppose today’s House Rules Committee resolution and I reject Representative Millis’ claim that any state or federal laws were broken by this Department.

“My Office has never commissioned a notary public on the basis of a DACA card. We have openly communicated with the General Assembly about our process. We have always told the General Assembly that if they want to change the notary law, we will administer such changes. Not one single change has been sent to us to administer in this area.

“The public should continue to have full confidence in the integrity of the more than 144,000 notaries public in North Carolina. Every single non-citizen we have commissioned as a notary public has presented appropriate federally-issued work authorization documentation to qualify as a notary.

“I can only conclude that this is a political attack and nothing else.”