Under heavy fire for orchestrating a so-called ‘hunting program’ for selected youths on county property using appropriated county equipment, Commissioner Mike Johnson has now been found to have been using the power of his office to solicit donations for a religious organization.  Johnson used his county email account to promote and solicit donations for Cross Trail Outfitters (CTO), a Christian based hunting and fishing club, with which he is affiliated.  This is in clear violation of county policy, state ethical standards and plain old common sense.

Johnson’s public promotion of  CTO, began as early as Feb 2010.  County records indicate there are at least 2,000 emails between 2010 and 2011 that were either to or from Commissioner Mike Johnson’s county e-mail account that either related to his work with CTO or contained the following signature block:

Truth or Dare has dozens of those e-mails, many pertaining to County business, where this signature block is used.  Clearly Commissioner Johnson wanted those with whom he corresponded in his official capacity to know that he was also the State Director for CTO.  He was blurring the line between his public role as Commissioner and his private role as State Director for CTO in order to promote the organization.  I don’t know about where you work but if I put a signature block in my work email that said Lisa Marley, Blogger, Truth or Dare, and had a link to my blog, my HR Department would call me out on it and right fast.  My signature block says “Lisa Marley, Sr. XXX, Company XXX”.  That’s the policy and there are no exceptions.

Not content to just advertise his dual role as County Commission and CTO State Director to those within his sphere of influence, in October 2010, Johnson sent out at least two emails from his County e-mail account to County employees, colleagues and business owners, asking for donations for CTO.  Here is the text of one email from his County email account to those various people:

We are getting closer to going live in North Carolina. We have shared Christ and the vision of CTO in many towns across the state with encouraging responses. Our Council of Elders and Executive Council is coming together nicely and we are praying about seven potential Outfitters at this time, each one of these men are amazing. We are putting on a summer camp at Oregon Inlet June 12-20 which will be one of a kind in the U.S. and we still have openings for boys age 10-17. We will have a vision camp in mid May for Elders, Executive Council and potential Outfitters. Also by the end of summer we hope to have our Outfitters calling camp and get these guys rolling. It is really amazing following God around and watching him roll out this ministry, he opens all the doors for us and he prepares all the hearts. I do at this time need your help.  If ten people would agree to help sign up ten each $100 / month donors we would be live in North Carolina..

Download the email here (the email addresses have been redacted to protect the recipients who didn’t realize that this communication could become public on account of it being sent from a county email address.)

This action, for starters, is a violation of county personnel policy.  Dare County Policy B17 explicitly prohibits the use of e-mail for “requesting contributions [or] soliciting for political or religious causes”.  There is a reason for it.  No public employee or citizen should feel pressured by the government to support a particular political or religious cause or feel that the working environment or a business relationship may be strained if they decline.  County Manager Bobby Outten, who is ultimately responsible for personnel administration, was one of the recipients of a solicitation email in addition to being a receiver of emails that contained the CTO signature block on county-business related emails.  Why did Outten allow this solicitation for a religious organization to continue in violation of County policy?  Is there one set of rules for Commissioners and a different set for everyone else?

The more important issue, though, is that by using his county email account, rather than his personal e-mail account, it seems to me that Johnson was attempting to use the power of his office to lend weight to his request.  Why else would he not use his personal email account?  An email request from Mike Johnson, citizen, does not carry as much weight as an email from Mike Johnson, County Commissioner.  This is an abuse of power and a violation of the public trust.  If CTO is so important to him that he will solicit for them through his elected position and abuse his county email account by sending or receiving 2,000 emails mentioning them, how can we trust that any of his subsequent actions or votes will be in the best interest of the County, not in the best interest of Mike Johnson and CTO?  How can we trust that donors and non-donors are treated equally, especially those who may have business before the Board?  I ask you, is making Johnsons’s pet hunting and fishing program a county program in the best interest of the citizens or in the best interest of Mike Johnson and CTO ?  Who does Commissioner Johnson represent first and foremost, CTO or the citizens of Dare County?

To ensure that government officials maintain the public’s trust, the State of North Carolina requires all local and county governments to have a Code of Ethics.  The Dare Code of Ethics, enacted in October 2010, is worthless.  It is not specific and has no penalties.  It is pablum, enacted only to satisfy the law’s requirements.  Clearly Dare County is not serious about ethics.   Were Johnson a state employee, though, he might be finding himself in it deep with Mr. Hanky.  His actions could violate at least one state code:

138A-32(b) A covered person may not solicit for a charitable purpose any thing of monetary value from any subordinate State employee…

According to Norma Houston of the UNC School of Government, while this statute only applies to state employees,

“it does offer some insight into legislative intent with regard to what is and is not considered unethical behavior.”

Johnson’s actions were both improper and unethical. One has to wonder if he is properly representing the citizens of Dare County or merely using his elected position for his own personal benefit. You be the judge.