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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Tillis Response Ad Cries ‘False’

A TV ad from GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis says that a recent attack ad about him from the Senate Majority PAC is “false.” We don’t think so.

The Tillis campaign’s response ad says, “Seen those ads attacking Thom Tillis? They’re false. Tillis fired the staffers.” That’s a reference to an ad from the liberal Senate Majority PAC that says two of Tillis’ former top aides had inappropriate relationships with lobbyists, later “resigned” and then were “rewarded” with “taxpayer-paid bonuses.”

Based on news reports, we think the Democratic super PAC’s account is accurate.

The Senate Majority PAC ad refers to Charles Thomas and Amy Hobbs, who are North Carolina House Speaker Tillis’ former chief of staff and former policy adviser, respectively. Thomas, the chief of staff, also shared an apartment with Tillis in Raleigh, N.C.

Both Thomas and Hobbs “resigned,” according to news reports, less than a week apart in 2012 after their intimate relationships with lobbyists became public. In addition, both aides, together, reportedly received more than $19,000 in severance pay from the speaker’s office “in lieu of notice” after resigning.

Here’s how the narrator of the liberal group’s ad describes the incident:

Senate Majority PAC ad: Thom Tillis shared an apartment with his chief of staff when North Carolina news reported that the chief of staff was having an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. He was caught on camera and resigned. Then one week later, another Tillis staffer resigns for another sexual relationship with a lobbyist. Thom Tillis’ reaction? He claimed he was surprised by his roommate’s affair, but then rewarded both aides with taxpayer-paid bonuses. Thom Tillis: Spending our money to clean up his mess.

The Tillis campaign’s response ad says that the liberal group’s ad is “false,” and it accuses Sen. Harry Reid, who is linked to the super PAC, of “meddling” in the GOP Senate primary in North Carolina to get a “weak opponent” for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

What exactly is “false” about the ad, as the Tillis campaign’s TV spot says?

In an email to FactCheck.org, Jordan Shaw, the Tillis campaign manager and spokesman, said the Senate Majority PAC ad “is false because it failed to note that Speaker Tillis forced them to resign and it is wrong in saying he ‘rewarded’ them with bonuses. He did no such thing — it was severance in conjunction with their forced resignation.”

But we don’t see that either point makes the Senate Majority PAC ad “false.”

Shaw said that Tillis “initiated the action that resulted in the termination of employment” for both Thomas and Hobbs. “He asked for (and received) their resignations,” Shaw added.

That may be, but the ad doesn’t say that Tillis didn’t initiate the action, either. We think most viewers would make the reasonable assumption that the boss – in this case Tillis – asked for the resignations or certainly willingly accepted them.

In most cases, news organizations reported the departures of Thomas and Hobbs as resignations, including the News & Observer stories cited in the Senate Majority PAC ad. Even Tillis himself had previously described his former staffers’ departures as resignations and not firings. Although, in the case of Hobbs, Tillis reportedly asked for her resignation, according to WRAL-TV in Raleigh. Tillis told the News & Observer that Thomas “verbally offered his resignation,” which he accepted.

It also isn’t necessarily “false” to say that Tillis “rewarded” Thomas and Hobbs with “taxpayer-paid bonuses.” That’s a judgment call. Clearly, some may see it that way and others may not. The fact is that Tillis’ office gave both Thomas and Hobbs each about a month’s worth of salary after they were no longer employed by the state.

Local media reported that Thomas received $9,338.94 in unused vacation time and $12,500 “in lieu of notice,” according to records from the General Assembly controller’s office. Hobbs was paid $6,833.33 “in lieu of notice” in addition to $4,632.20 in unused vacation time. However, news reports at the time said there was no requirement for Tillis to award payments “in lieu of notice.”

As WRAL-TV reported:

May 17, 2012: Payment for unused vacation time is standard for state employees who resign. But “Payment in Lieu of Notice” is not. Legislative employees like Thomas are “EPA” – exempt from the State Personnel Act – and can be fired at will with no notice.

The News & Observer reported something similar:

May 17, 2012: Under North Carolina law and rules, however, high-ranking legislative employees are exempt from state personnel laws and generally work “at will,” meaning they can be dismissed for no reason and without severance.

According to the WRAL story, Tillis told reporters that he believed that the payments were “fair,” because the staffers had to sever ties with his office immediately and were not allowed to give the standard two weeks’ notice. He also released a statement saying that both Thomas and Hobbs had worked for his office for a period of time without pay.

“I accepted their resignations because their personal choices were not acceptable in my office. I recognized that their jobs and careers were forever affected by their choices, and that serious family obligations still existed for each of them. I stand by my decision to accept their resignation while recognizing the difficult transition period they are now entering,” Tillis’ statement said.

Tillis may believe that the severance pay to his former staffers was “fair,” but that doesn’t change the fact that it was taxpayer money that wasn’t required to be given to them. And while his campaign now claims that Tillis fired both Thomas and Hobbs, it doesn’t change the fact that he had previously described their departures as resignations that he had accepted.

That context isn’t mentioned in the Senate Majority PAC’s 30-second TV spot, but it doesn’t make the ad’s claims “false.”

— D’Angelo Gore