163A-156. Inquiries by the State Board.

(a) Jurisdiction. - The State Board may receive complaints alleging unethical conduct by covered persons and legislative employees and shall conduct inquiries of complaints alleging unethical conduct by covered persons and legislative employees, as set forth in this section.

(b) Notice of Allegation. - Upon receipt by the State Board of a written allegation of unethical conduct by a covered person or legislative employee, or the initiation by the State Board of an inquiry into unethical conduct under subsection (c) of this section, the State Board shall immediately notify the covered person or legislative employee subject to the allegation or inquiry in writing.

(c) Institution of Proceedings. - On its own motion, in response to a signed and sworn complaint of any individual filed with the State Board, or upon the written request of any public servant or those responsible for the hiring, appointing, or supervising of a public servant, the State Board shall conduct an inquiry into any of the following:

(1) The application or alleged violation of this Subchapter.

(2) For legislators, the application or alleged violations of Part 1 of Article 14 of Chapter 120 of the General Statutes.

(3) An alleged violation of the criminal law by a covered person in the performance of that individual's official duties.

(4) An alleged violation of G.S. 126-14.

Upon receipt of a referral under G.S. 147-64.6B or a report under G.S. 147-64.6(c)(19), the State Board may conduct an inquiry under this section on its own motion. Allegations of violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct shall be referred to the Judicial Standards Commission without investigation.

(d) Complaints on Its Own Motion. - An investigation initiated by the State Board on its own motion or upon written request of any public servant or those responsible for the hiring, appointing, or supervising of a public servant instituted under subsection (c) of this section shall be treated as a complaint for purposes of this section and need not be sworn or verified.

(e) Complaint. -

(1) A sworn complaint filed under this Subchapter shall state the name, address, and telephone number of the individual filing the complaint, the name and job title or appointive position of the covered person or legislative employee against whom the complaint is filed, and a concise statement of the nature of the complaint and specific facts indicating that a violation of this Subchapter or Chapter 120 of the General Statutes or G.S. 126-14 or the criminal law in the performance of that individual's official duties has occurred, the date the alleged violation occurred, and either (i) that the contents of the complaint are within the knowledge of the individual verifying the complaint, or (ii) the basis upon which the individual verifying the complaint believes the allegations to be true.

(2) Except as provided in subsection (f) of this section, a complaint filed under this Subchapter must be filed within two years of the date the complainant knew or should have known of the conduct upon which the complaint is based.

(3) The State Board may decline to accept, refer, or conduct an inquiry into any complaint that does not meet all of the requirements set forth in subdivision (1) of this subsection, or the State Board may, in its sole discretion, request additional information to be provided by the complainant within a specified period of time of no less than five business days.

(4) In addition to subdivision (3) of this subsection, the State Board may decline to accept, refer, or conduct an inquiry into a complaint if it determines that any of the following apply:

a. The complaint is frivolous or brought in bad faith.

b. The covered person or legislative employee and conduct complained of have already been the subject of a prior complaint.

c. The conduct complained of is primarily a matter more appropriately and adequately addressed and handled by other federal, State, or local agencies or authorities, including law enforcement authorities. If other agencies or authorities are conducting an investigation of the same actions or conduct involved in a complaint filed under this section, the State Board may stay its complaint inquiry pending final resolution of the other investigation.

(5) The State Board shall send a copy of the complaint to the covered person or legislative employee who is the subject of the complaint and the employing entity, within 10 business days of the filing.

(f) Conduct of Inquiry of Complaints by the State Board. - The State Board shall conduct an inquiry into all complaints properly before the State Board in a timely manner. The State Board shall initiate an inquiry into a complaint within 10 business days of the filing of the complaint. The State Board is authorized to initiate inquiries upon request of any member of the State Board if there is reason to believe that a covered person or legislative employee has or may have violated this Subchapter. State-Board-initiated complaint inquiries under this section shall be initiated within two years of the date the State Board knew of the conduct upon which the complaint is based, except when the conduct is material to the continuing conduct of the duties in office. In determining whether there is reason to believe that a violation has or may have occurred, a member of the State Board may take general notice of available information even if not formally provided to the State Board in the form of a complaint. The State Board may utilize the services of a hired investigator when conducting inquiries.

(g) Covered Person and Legislative Employees Cooperation With Inquiry. - Covered persons and legislative employees shall promptly and fully cooperate with the State Board in any State-Board-related inquiry. Failure to cooperate fully with the State Board in any inquiry shall be grounds for sanctions as set forth in G.S. 163A-415.

(h) Dismissal of Complaint After Preliminary Inquiry. - The State Board shall conclude the preliminary inquiry within 20 business days. The State Board shall dismiss the complaint, if at the end of its preliminary inquiry the State Board determines that any of the following apply:

(1) The individual who is the subject of the complaint is not a covered person or legislative employee subject to the State Board's jurisdiction and authority under this Subchapter.

(2) The complaint does not allege facts sufficient to constitute a violation within the jurisdiction of the State Board under subsection (c) of this section.

(3) The complaint is determined to be frivolous or brought in bad faith.

(i) State Board Inquiries. - If at the end of its preliminary inquiry, the State Board determines to proceed with further inquiry into the conduct of a covered person or legislative employee, the State Board shall provide written notice to the individual who filed the complaint and the covered person or legislative employee as to the fact of the inquiry and the charges against the covered person or legislative employee. The covered person or legislative employee shall be given an opportunity to file a written response with the State Board.

(j) Action on Inquiries. - The State Board shall conduct inquiries into complaints to the extent necessary to either dismiss the complaint for lack of probable cause of a violation under this section, or:

(1) For public servants, decide to proceed with a hearing under subsection (k) of this section.

(2) For legislators, except the Lieutenant Governor, refer the complaint to the Committee.

(3) For judicial officers, refer the complaint to the Judicial Standards Commission for complaints against justices and judges, to the senior resident superior court judge of the district or county for complaints against district attorneys, or to the chief district court judge for the district or county for complaints against clerks of court.

(4) For legislative employees, refer the complaint to the employing entity.

(k) Hearing. -

(1) The State Board shall give full and fair consideration to all complaints received against a public servant. If the State Board determines that the complaint cannot be resolved without a hearing, or if the public servant requests a hearing, a hearing shall be held.

(2) The State Board shall send a notice of the hearing to the complainant, and the public servant. The notice shall contain the time and place for a hearing on the matter, which shall begin no less than 30 days and no more than 90 days after the date of the notice.

(3) The State Board shall make available to the public servant or that public servant's private legal counsel all documents or other evidence which are intended to be presented at the hearing to the State Board or which a reasonable person would believe might exculpate the accused public servant at least 30 days prior to the date of the hearing held in connection with the investigation of a complaint. Any documents or other evidence discovered within less than 30 days of the hearing shall be furnished as soon as possible after discovery but prior to the hearing.

(4) At any hearing held by the State Board:

a. Oral evidence shall be taken only on oath or affirmation.

b. The hearing shall be open to the public, except for matters involving minors, personnel records, or matters that could otherwise be considered in closed session under G.S. 143-318.11. In any event, the deliberations by the State Board on a complaint may be held in closed session.

c. The public servant being investigated shall have the right to present evidence, call and examine witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, introduce exhibits, and be represented by counsel.

(l) Settlement of Inquiries. - The public servant who is the subject of the complaint and the staff of the State Board may meet by mutual consent before the hearing to discuss the possibility of settlement of the inquiry or the stipulation of any issues, facts, or matters of law. Any proposed settlement of the inquiry is subject to the approval of the State Board.

(m) Disposition of Inquiries. - After hearing, the State Board shall dispose of the matter in one or more of the following ways:

(1) If the State Board finds substantial evidence of an alleged violation of a criminal statute, the State Board shall refer the matter to the Attorney General for investigation and referral to the district attorney for possible prosecution.

(2) If the State Board finds that the alleged violation is not established by clear and convincing evidence, the State Board shall dismiss the complaint.

(3) If the State Board finds that the alleged violation of this Subchapter is established by clear and convincing evidence, the State Board shall do one or more of the following:

a. Issue a private admonishment to the public servant and notify the employing entity, if applicable. Such notification shall be treated as part of the personnel record of the public servant.

b. Refer the matter for appropriate action to the Governor and the employing entity that appointed or employed the public servant or of which the public servant is a member.

c. Refer the matter for appropriate action to the Chief Justice for judicial employees.

d. Refer the matter to the Principal Clerks of the House of Representatives and Senate of the General Assembly for constitutional officers of the State.

e. Refer the matter for appropriate action to the principal clerk of the house of the General Assembly that elected the public servant for members of the Board of Governors and the State Board of Community Colleges.

(n) Notice of Dismissal. - Upon the dismissal of a complaint under this section, the State Board shall provide written notice of the dismissal to the individual who filed the complaint and the covered person or legislative employee against whom the complaint was filed. The State Board shall forward copies of complaints and notices of dismissal of complaints against legislators to the Committee, against legislative employees to the employing entity for legislative employees, and against judicial officers to the Judicial Standards Commission for complaints against justices and judges, and the senior resident superior court judge of the district or county for complaints against district attorneys, or the chief district court judge of the district or county for complaints against clerks of court. The State Board shall also forward a copy of the notice of dismissal to the employing entity of the covered person against whom a complaint was filed if the employing entity received a copy of the complaint under subdivision (5) of subsection (e) of this section. Except as provided in subsection (p) of this section, the complaint and notice of dismissal are confidential and not public records.

(o) Reports and Records. - The State Board shall render the results of its inquiry in writing. When a matter is referred under subdivision (j)(2) and (3), or subsection (m) of this section, the State Board's report shall consist of the complaint, response, and detailed results of its inquiry in support of the State Board's finding of a violation under this Subchapter.

(p) Confidentiality. - Complaints and responses filed with the State Board and reports and other investigative documents and records of the State Board connected to an inquiry under this section, including information provided pursuant to G.S. 147-64.6B or G.S. 147-64.6(c)(19), shall be confidential and not matters of public record, except as otherwise provided in this section or when the covered person or legislative employee under inquiry requests in writing that the complaint, response, and findings be made public. Once a hearing under this section commences, the complaint, response, and all other documents offered at the hearing in conjunction with the complaint, not otherwise privileged or confidential under law, shall be public records. If no hearing is held at such time as the State Board reports to the employing entity a recommendation of sanctions, the complaint and response shall be made public.

(q) Staff to the State Board may share with staff to the Committee information connected to an inquiry into the conduct of a legislator under this section. The State Board shall provide to the Committee copies of all reports, investigative documents, information, and other documents used by the State Board when it refers a complaint to the Committee under subdivision (2) of subsection (j) of this section. Upon written request by staff to the Committee, the State Board shall provide copies of all reports, investigative documents, information, and other documents used by the State Board when it dismisses a complaint against a legislator under subsection (n) of this section. The information and documents provided to the Committee and staff to the Committee and the written request provided to the State Board are confidential and are not public records as defined in G.S. 132-1.

(r) Recommendations of Sanctions. - After referring a matter under subsection (m) of this section, if requested by the entity to which the matter was referred, the State Board may recommend sanctions or issue rulings as it deems necessary or appropriate to protect the public interest and ensure compliance with this Subchapter. In recommending appropriate sanctions, the State Board may consider the following factors:

(1) The public servant's prior experience in an agency or on a board and prior opportunities to learn the ethical standards for a public servant as set forth in Article 7 of this Chapter, including those dealing with conflicts of interest.

(2) The number of ethics violations.

(3) The severity of the ethics violations.

(4) Whether the ethics violations involve the public servant's financial interest.

(5) Whether the ethics violations were inadvertent or intentional.

(6) Whether the public servant knew or should have known that the improper conduct was a violation of this Subchapter.

(7) Whether the public servant has previously been advised or warned by the State Board.

(8) Whether the conduct or situation giving rise to the ethics violation was pointed out to the public servant in the State Board's Statement of Economic Interest evaluation letter issued under G.S. 163A-189(e).

(9) The public servant's motivation or reason for the improper conduct or action, including whether the action was for personal financial gain versus protection of the public interest.

In making recommendations under this subsection, if the State Board determines, after proper review and investigation, that sanctions are appropriate, the State Board may recommend any action it deems necessary to properly address and rectify any violation of this Subchapter by a public servant, including removal of the public servant from the public servant's State position. Nothing in this subsection is intended, and shall not be construed, to give the State Board any independent civil, criminal, or administrative investigative or enforcement authority over covered persons, or other State employees or appointees.

(s) Authority of Employing Entity. - Any action or failure to act by the State Board under this Subchapter, except G.S. 163A-157, shall not limit any authority of any of the applicable employing entities to discipline the covered person or legislative employee.

(t) Continuing Jurisdiction. - The State Board shall have continuing jurisdiction to investigate possible criminal violations of this Subchapter for a period of one year following the date an individual, who was formerly a public servant or legislative employee, ceases to be a public servant or legislative employee for any investigation that commenced prior to the date the public servant or legislative employee ceases to be a public servant or legislative employee.

(u) Reports. - The number of complaints referred under this section shall be reported under G.S. 163A-154(a)(12).

(v) Concurrent Jurisdiction. - Nothing in this section shall limit the jurisdiction of the Committee or the Judicial Standards Commission with regards to legislative or judicial misconduct, and jurisdiction under this section shall be concurrent with the jurisdiction of the Committee and the Judicial Standards Commission. (2006-201, s. 1; 2007-348, ss. 27-30; 2008-187, s. 21; 2008-213, ss. 1(b), 57; 2008-215, ss. 4, 5; 2009-549, ss. 9, 10, 11; 2010-169, s. 23(a)-(e), (h); 2012-182, s. 3; 2017-6, ss. 3, 5(e).)