Political influence of nurse anesthetists questioned

by Jordan Green

Allegations of political corruption in Raleigh continue to ripple in the wake of House Speaker Jim Black’s guilty plea on federal and state charges earlier this year. The newest round of concerns involve whether the former speaker and other elected officials blocked legislation considered unfavorable to nurse anesthetists in return for campaign contributions.

An April 5 letter from Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic consultant turned venture capitalist, calls on Joe Hackney, the new House speaker, to launch a formal investigation into whether Black, Rep. Thomas Wright (D-Wilmington) and Rep. William Wainwright (D-Havelock) collaborated to block legislation that would have placed nurse anesthetists under doctors’ supervision, in exchange for what Sinsheimer characterizes as “an orgy of campaign giving.”

After legislation that would have reduced the nurses’ authority was unanimously approved in a voice vote of the House Health Committee in July 2005, Sinsheimer’s letter states that Wright as chairman single-handedly killed it by not advancing it for a vote by the full House. Several months later, Sinsheimer says, Black received bundled contributions totaling $8,700 from individuals listing their occupation as certified registered nurse anesthetists, while Wright received $7,950 and Wainwright, who was also a member of the committee, received $9,524.

“The bundling of contributions was directed at three folks,” Sinsheimer said. “If bundling is being used to get around the four-thousand-dollar limit for [political action committee] contributions, what’s the point? The ethics law passed last year said lobbyists can’t give money anymore. The legislature jumped up and down and said what a great thing that is. But their real power is to go to their special interest friends and ask them to bundle money for them.”

Campaign spending by nurse anesthetists is a case of a group playing catch-up in an escalating series of professional turf battles, said Bob Hall, executive director of the Carrboro good government group Democracy North Carolina.

“The nurses were facing a substantial opponent in the anesthesiologists, who had built a statewide network of political action committees, about a dozen of which together put in somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars,” he said. “The anesthesiologists were contributing a huge amount of money. The nurses were playing catch-up. Somewhere along the line they got the idea that they needed to become a substantial political contributor, not just to have whatever merits of the argument there were going for them, but also to have political money that they could put into the battle to prevail.”

What remains unclear is whether the three legislators communicated an expectation to the nurses that they expected a financial reward for blocking the legislation. Frank Gray, a lobbyist for the NC Association of Nurse Anesthetists, did not return a phone call from YES! Weekly on April 6. Wright and Wainwright also did not return calls.

Regardless of whether the arrangement was expressly communicated, Hall finds the sequence of events troubling.

“Whether that is something that someone specifically told them they needed to do or that was internalized that that was what they had to do to succeed, it’s hard for me to know,” he said, “but somewhere along the way they decided they needed to pay to play, and to pay more.”

Hall said nurse anesthetists made a “dramatic increase” in political contributions between 2002 and 2006. Their political action committee doled out $103,050 to political candidates in the 2006 campaign cycle, up from $35,000 in the 2002 campaign cycle. In contrast, 15 anesthesiologist political action committees gave $504,827 in the 2006 election cycle, he said.

Sinsheimer’s request for a House investigation into possible machinations behind the scuttled nurse anesthetist legislation comes exactly four months after he requested that the state Board of Elections investigate Wright for deliberately hiding controversial campaign contributions in the run-up to the 2006 election. Following Sinsheimer’s request, the Board of Elections launched an investigation with subpoena power against Wright.

Sinsheimer’s letter to the Board of Elections called for an investigation into whether Wright’s campaign committee “deliberately filed false, incomplete and or misleading campaign finance reports in an attempt to hide contributions from at least three controversial sources: 1) the developers of the proposed Hugo Neu landfill in Brunswick County, North Carolina; 2) lobbyists for Atlanta-based CompuCredit, Inc., a company specializing in payday and other sub-prime lending; and 3) the sub-prime consumer finance industry in general.”

Sinsheimer wrote: “Preliminary research reveals that Rep. Wright may have attempted to file false, misleading and incomplete campaign finance reports to 1) hide these contributions so that they would not become a campaign issue in either his 2006 primary or general election campaigns; and 2) guarantee his continuing legislative involvement in the proposed location of mega landfills in the state of North Carolina.”

The Board of Elections has been tight-lipped about its investigation, but other inquiries suggest that Wright’s campaign contribution reporting problems extend beyond the last election. The Star-News of Wilmington reported on March 30 that Wright has failed to report a total of $119,607 since his first campaign in 1992.

In a sign of Wright’s declining fortunes Sims Hugo Neu announced on April 5 that it has abandoned plans for what its president termed “a state-of-the-art material recycling facility” in Brunswick County. Dan Strechay, a public relations consultant, said the following day that the company would defer all questions to Wright.

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