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Downplaying ambitions to become House speaker, Moffitt still leads company coordinating 30 legislators’ online messaging
Rep. Tim Moffitt, the second-term Republican state legislator who represents parts of Buncombe County, has long maintained that conservatives don’t get a fair shake in the press. So he created his own media company, InTouchNC, in December 2012.
The company has provided “a new level of constituent service,” he said in a recent interview.
InTouchNC conducts online operations for about 30 of Moffitt’s House Republican colleagues, running websites and social media for them.
The company’s extensive content addresses North Carolina legislation, politics and history, emphasizing the GOP’s perspective on things.
So far, InTouchNC has made an occasional splash and some money, while mostly sidestepping concerns about how much state legislators can and should forge business relationships with their colleagues.
And aside from an initial burst of publicity after the company’s launch — and a publicized spat over a print insert the company commissioned in the Asheville Citizen-Times — Moffitt’s side project has received little media attention.
Now, a Carolina Public Press investigation has documented a new level of detail about InTouchNC. Campaign finance reports, along with interviews with Moffitt and others, reveal much about the company’s scope and operations.
Among our findings:
• InTouchNC has received more than $55,000 in payments from the campaign committees of dozens of state legislators.
• The company’s top client has been Moffitt himself, with the legislator paying his company $9,500 from his own campaign funds.
• According to Moffitt, he did not vet the idea of establishing the company with the State Ethics Commission, contradicting an early media report that said he had done so.
• A number of legislators who have received the company’s services have listed no expenditures to InTouchNC in their campaign finance reports. Moffitt said they are paying by other means.
• The company’s print project — a tabloid-sized newspaper called The Raleigh Digest — will continue despite the dispute that occurred after it appeared as an insert in the Asheville Citizen-Times last November. In addition, InTouchNC recently diversified, taking on some non-political clients as well.
Moffitt has asserted all along that the enterprise is above board and a beneficial form of outreach to constituents. But InTouchNC entered a heated political landscape without much precedent, charting its course while Moffitt, no stranger to controversy, seeks both reelection this year and, potentially, a greater role in state politics.
The birth of InTouchNC
In a lengthy interview at his south Asheville home and office in late April, Moffitt told Carolina Public Press that he founded the company to counter what he thought were faulty depictions of the work he and other legislators were doing.
When Moffitt was first elected in 2010, “I was relying on the news media to keep me informed and abreast of what was happening, to give me the straight skinny,” he said. “But as I witnessed what was actually happening and read how it was being reported, I felt like it was grossly inaccurate a significant amount of the time.”
Moffitt was particularly dismayed, he said, by media coverage of his legislative activity. So, in early 2012, he launched a website to explain his take on the situation.
Fellow legislators “were appreciative of what I had created, and they wanted to know if I could do the same for them,” Moffitt said.
“That’s how it all started. I realized, ‘I can do it for you, but it’s going to take a lot of my time and it’s going to cost money, but if this is something you want, then I’ll go ahead and put it together.’ And that’s when I launched InTouchNC.”
InTouchNC purchased 170 website domain names, for all of the state’s 120 House and 50 Senate seats. (Moffitt’s own site, for example, is at nchouse116.com.)
Moffitt said the company wasn’t patterned after any previous initiatives in North Carolina or elsewhere.
“We just figured it out,” he said.
Peggy Kerns, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government, a Denver, Colo.-based nonprofit, said she’s never heard of an arrangement quite like the one Moffitt has put together with InTouchNC. Lawmakers are increasingly engaging in social media, she said, but this is the only case she’s aware of wherein a state legislator runs a company that handles online operations for colleagues.
Documents detail InTouchNC’s income
InTouchNC offers tiers of services, which start at the rate of $250 per month.
“The basic package provides a constituent-service website, a companion Facebook page and a Twitter account,” Moffitt said. Most of his clients have all of their online content produced by the company, but some opt to write some of their own.
“They can elect to have more personal involvement with the content,” Moffitt said. “It’s an additional expense for them but it does allows them to have some editorial control.”
Henderson County Rep. Chuck McGrady, for example, has used the service in that way, writing his own copy to add to the boilerplate messages appearing on the company’s websites.
“It’s been a helpful way for me to get information back to my district,” McGrady said of InTouchNC’s services.
At the same time, he doesn’t always see eye to eye with the company’s content, and sometimes opts out of it appearing on his website.
“On occasion, they have put something out that I might not agree with, and I have said, ‘No, I don’t want that. That doesn’t reflect my views,’” McGrady said. “For example, Tim (Moffitt) was the lead sponsor on the regulatory reform bill. I voted against it, so I told them I did not need their commentary (about the bill) on my site.”
McGrady has paid InTouchNC $7,000 so far, exceeded only by Moffitt, who has paid the company $9,500.
In all, InTouchNC has received at least $55,200 from state House members, according to a CPP review of campaign finance reports spanning from January 2013 to April 2014. A few of the clients have documented no payments from campaign funds; Moffitt said those individuals are paying by other means.
The reports show that the clients have differing definitions of what, exactly, InTouchNC does for them. Some say they pay the company for constituent services, while others categorize the expenditures as payment for media outreach, website hosting, fundraising or office expenses.
Moffitt: InTouchNC faces no ethics concerns
Shortly after Moffitt founded InTouchNC, NC Insider, a news service that covers the General Assembly and the governor’s office, published a report on the company.
The article quoted Moffitt as saying he had “thoroughly vetted” the concept of the business with the State Ethics Commission before launching it. Among the commission’s functions is advising legislators on questions regarding potential conflicts of interest.
However, Moffitt told CPP he did not take that step. “No, I didn’t run it by the Ethics Commission,” he said. Instead, “I reviewed the ethics laws to make sure that I wasn’t going to violate any.”
Moffitt said he’s sure the company’s operations pose no ethical quandaries. Some lawyers who are elected to serve in the N.C. General Assembly, he pointed out, do business with some of their legislative colleagues. “I don’t think this is any different than that,” he said of InTouchNC’s situation.
And as for paying his campaign funds to a company he owns, Moffitt has no qualms. “I don’t see a conflict there,” he said. “The conflict would be would be if I wasn’t paying for it.” State law prohibits corporations from giving gifts to lawmakers, including free services.
Josh Lawson, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, declined to discuss the particulars about InTouchNC, but said this: “There is nothing in our rules or statutes that prohibits a lawmaker from directing campaign funds to a company they own, so long as the expenditures are documented properly and meet the requirements for approved uses of those funds.”
Kerns, from the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that “a legislator actively soliciting clients from his colleagues may mix up his business with the action of making public policy; that’s where this could get muddy.” But she stressed that she wasn’t familiar with Moffitt’s company and how North Carolina laws regulate it.
Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said that because InTouchNC is owned by a legislator who’s making money from his colleagues, the company can’t escape at least something of a perception problem.
“Even if it’s legal and ethical, I think it reinforces a lot of what people hate about politics — the sense that there’s a political class that’s reinforcing itself,” he said. “It raises a lot of interesting questions about how legislators benefit one another financially.”
That said, “It’s not that unprecedented for folks to be making money off of politics at the same time they are part-time legislators,” Cooper noted. He cited the example of state Sen. Andrew Brock, a Davie County Republican who runs a political consulting firm, Brock Communications.
Asked for a reaction to Cooper’s critique, Moffitt said that, first of all, InTouchNC isn’t enriching him. “It’s a net loss for me,” he said. He said he pays four staffers to run the company’s operations.
As for concerns about potential conflicts of interest, “I’m disappointed by that perception, because I want this to be appreciated for what it is: Keeping the public engaged with what we are doing and letting them know what’s actually taking place,” Moffitt said.
The Raleigh Digest dust-up
According to Moffitt, informing the public was also the chief goal of The Raleigh Digest, a 48-page tabloid that InTouchNC paid to insert in a November issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
“We created Raleigh Digest because we’re in a digital age, but not everybody is participating in the digital age,” Moffitt said. “Even a lot of our clients were having difficulty appreciating the value of a digital presence, and they wanted a newsletter.”
So, he said, the company began repackaging its content, first in PDF form, and eventually with a print edition.
The cover of the publication pledged to explain “What really happened last year in Raleigh.” Its contents were largely drawn from InTouchNC’s websites, with an emphasis on items that explained and defended key pieces of legislation passed in 2013 by the GOP-led General Assembly.
The insert drew complaints from some Citizen-Times readers because it wasn’t labeled as advertising and could have been mistaken for actual news coverage.
In an open letter, UNC Asheville journalism professor Mark West called the situation “a major failure of journalistic ethics.”
The newspaper’s publisher, Dave Neill, ultimately said that the insert “was political advertising, loosely defined,” and should have been identified as such.
Moffitt said the complaints were much ado about nothing. “That was a faux protest,” he said. “There are people that are just opposed me generally, whether it’s because I’m Republican or because I stand up to the city of Asheville. They’re just opposed to me, so they take issue with anything I do.”
The Raleigh Digest, Moffitt maintained, wasn’t fundamentally political.
“The issue that people tried to create with it was that since didn’t have this huge disclaimer on there that it was political advertising, that that’s a problem,” he said. “I disagree, because it’s not political advertising. It’s not advertising any candidate, it’s discussing legislation. I don’t want it to be seen as a political document, because it’s not.”
One of the articles in the publication, titled “How Local Government Works,” drew particular criticism. The article noted that the General Assembly has the power to both establish and abolish local government entities, including cities.
The article mentioned no city in particular, but was illustrated with a photo of Asheville City Hall, leading some to question if the image was meant as a veiled threat to officials in Asheville, whom Moffitt has often sparred with.
Asked why that photo was chosen for the article, Moffitt said, “Because I have a sense of humor.”
Moffitt said that a new edition of The Raleigh Digest will be forthcoming. “We’re already ready for the next one, we just haven’t decided when to print it,” he said.
And InTouchNC will continue to diversify its operations, he said. It’s in the process of developing a mobile app, and recently started doing commercial print work for churches and small businesses.
“We’re a full-fledged media company now,” Moffitt said.
A role in Moffitt’s political future?
Aside from the revenues and publicity IntouchNC has generated, Moffitt’s company has also built a statewide roster of legislative clients, all of whom are fellow House Republicans.
The clients represent districts ranging from District 1, in North Carolina’s northeast corner, to District 120, in the westernmost part of the state, and include Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, who’s paid the company $3,000 so far.
At a March meeting of the Henderson County Republican Party, Tillis, who’s now running for the U.S. Senate, touted InTouchNC’s print publication.
“I don’t know about you, but (the Citizen-Times) doesn’t seem to be too thrilled about conservative values,” he said, holding up a copy of The Raleigh Digest. “Rep. Moffitt tried to do a good job of inserting this and getting it out, and I think it caught some of the editors’ hair on fire. But it’ll tell you about a lot of the good things we’ve done.”
Could IntouchNC’s network of business relationships assist Moffitt in pursuing his reported interest in replacing as Tillis as House speaker?
That’s not the plan, Moffitt told CPP, at least not yet.
“It’s flattering to be talked about as a potential candidate for speaker,” he said. “Am I interested in it? I think anyone who’s been (in the House) probably has thought it would be a neat thing to become speaker. My interest is no more, no less, than anyone else’s. I mean, I’ve got lots of responsibilities, and I’m not really even focused on that at all.”