#ncga: Senate Dems’ #MeToo moment?



We’ve told you wild stories about the goings-on in the GOP caucus room.   Now it appears things get just as rowdy on the other side of the aisle.


Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh are just two examples of GOP nominees who had their reputations stomped all over by dubious sexual harassment and assault allegations.  Always believe the woman, we were told.  Republicans / conservatives are pigs, we were told.  Guilty before proven innocent was the operating philosophy.



Well,  check out what’s oozed from the Senate Democrat caucus:


Last Sept. 11, state Sen. Paul Lowe was leaving a Democratic caucus meeting at the North Carolina General Assembly when he stopped, angrily grabbed a reporter’s phone, and threw it across the room.


While a video recording of the incident was widely viewed, what really happened in the caucus room and what led up to that confrontation hasn’t been clear.


Now, documents obtained by The News & Observer and ProPublica show a conclusion by police that Lowe committed an assault inside the room. He has not been charged. The records also reveal infighting between Senate Democrats and allegations against multiple senators that include sexually harassing comments.

The documents were part of an investigation of an ethics complaint filed in late April by Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing Eastern North Carolina. In the complaint, she accused lawmakers of bullying, sexual comments and verbal insults, and asked for expulsion from the Senate for two of them.


Smith said she has been trying to get recourse for years.


She said that other senators have been quiet as she has been bullied and disrespected.

“For me, I don’t want to have to do this, but I want no one else to have to go through this,” Smith said about taking her concerns public as well as filing an ethics complaint.


“No one should have to fear being cursed out, yelled at, embarrassed and humiliated,” she said.

She added, “This is unacceptable, and it has to change. And it’s not going to change until someone stands up for it,” she said.


Last week, the Legislative Ethics Committee of the North Carolina General Assembly dismissed parts of her complaint.

But there’s more to be said about the committee itself: A group of lawmakers that assesses other lawmakers, making decisions in private, with no statewide process for transparently and openly addressing complaints from the seat of state government.


Three of the senators Smith accused sit on the 12-member ethics committee. All three recused themselves from considering her complaint.


Before the committee’s decision, The News & Observer and ProPublica obtained documents associated with the complaint — including a report summary written by a General Assembly Police Department officer and witness statements taken by police.


The documents give details about the shouting that drew the attention of people outside the caucus room in the Legislative Building on a day when national attention became focused on North Carolina’s legislature.

The Democratic caucus argument happened on Sept. 11, 2019, after a controversial budget veto override by the Republican-majority House. The vote in the House, with almost half of lawmakers absent, brought Republicans within just a few senators’ votes of finally passing their budget over the veto of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.


The override vote was a dramatic moment in a months-long standoff between the governor and Republican lawmakers, with a viral video of Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat, shouting at House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican.


Later that same morning, Democratic senators met in caucus in the Legislative Building, and Smith and Lowe began arguing loudly.




Sen. Sam Searcy’s witness statement, which was obtained by The News & Observer, describes a “verbal dispute” between Lowe and Smith.

“Senator Lowe initiated the argument by making a statement directed towards Senator Smith. Senator Smith did not like the comment made and responded to Senator Lowe. A hostile, verbal back [and] forth between the two Senators ensued,” Searcy’s statement said.


Lowe approached Smith, according to the police report summary.


Searcy intervened. His statement says that he “felt the need to step in between both Senator Lowe and Sen Smith, fearing the possibility of a physical assault. I have witnessed Senator Lowe use profane and hostile language to Senator Smith and others before.”


In his report summary, the investigating officer, Lt. Francisco Flores Jr., said, “Although no physical contact took place, it is my understanding that Senator Smith feared for her safety, thus changing her course of action due to the behavior of Senator Lowe.” Then-Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. and Sen. Jay Chaudhuri led Lowe out of the room.


The result, the officer said: “a simple assault did occur.”


At the time, the incident drew more attention for what happened afterward. A news article by NC Policy Watch the same day described how Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian heard yelling from outside the room and recorded video of Lowe leaving the room with Chaudhuri and McKissick.


In the video by Killian, as the door opens, Smith is seen in the background in the caucus meeting room. In the video, Lowe is seen grabbing Killian’s phone.


The Policy Watch article says Lowe threw the phone across the room. The police report states that Lowe allegedly grabbed Killian’s camera and threw it on the floor.


Later, after a meeting with Policy Watch staff and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, Lowe issued an apology in a public statement to Killian. Killian did not seek criminal charges, the report says.


After the investigation later in September of the incident between Lowe and Smith, Smith also chose not to file criminal charges at that time. So despite the officer’s conclusion that a simple assault had taken place, Lowe has not faced any criminal charge.


This past week before the results of the ethics committee’s investigation, Lowe told The News & Observer that he didn’t have anything to say about the ethics complaint or police report included in it.


“There’s nothing I can say at this time,” Lowe said. “I read the document and my lawyer’s looking over it.”


After the Sept. 11 incident, Lowe made an apology to Smith during a private Democratic caucus meeting she didn’t attend, Smith said.




According to Smith and others who have served in the Senate, it wasn’t their first argument. The police report summary also says that other senators interviewed for the investigation were aware of a “hostile relationship” between Smith and Lowe.


Searcy’s statement says that he was in the Senate chambers during a 2019 floor session and heard Lowe tell Smith, “F— you and F— Cooper too.”


Both Smith, of Henrico, and Lowe, of Winston-Salem, are Christian clergy serving their third terms in the Senate.



Smith said she complained about Lowe to others prior to the Sept. 11 incident, and said she’s been frustrated with the ethics committee process that takes her complaint through her fellow lawmakers.

A 2015 argument between Lowe and Smith happened while Democratic caucus members were eating dinner at a Raleigh restaurant.

Former Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte-area Democrat, remembers that dinner. He said it was a loud and heated exchange between Lowe and Smith.


Ford said if not for being asked by a reporter about it, he would never have mentioned it because it was embarrassing for it to happen between two sitting senators who are pastors.


“I thought it was just going to stay right there,” Ford said about the dinner argument. “That would’ve been the beginning of them going back and forth.”


Ford remembers Smith telling him her frustrations about Lowe. He said he understands why Smith is taking her complaint public.


“I am respectful of the institution. I am respectful of my colleagues and the institution and the state Senate and would like to have seen something like this handled in-house,” Ford said in a phone interview with The News & Observer.


He said that everyone needs to be heard. “And my disappointment is the leadership did not check it before it got to this point. Because clearly, because based upon her [coming] forward, she wasn’t heard,” Ford said.


“I know her to be a reasonable and thoughtful person. I don’t always agree with her. It’s unfortunate that she had to go this far, but I understand,” he said.


“I really revere the institution and respect confidentiality, but I also respect people’s rights,” Ford said about Smith’s complaints. “They deserve to be heard. This to me is really unfortunate — because at the end of the day what comes from this? … I guess you hope the behavior changes,” Ford said.



In the same April ethics complaint that complains of Lowe’s behavior, Smith accuses Sen. Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr. of Wilson and Sen. Mike Woodard of Durham of sexual harassment.


Lowe, Fitch and Woodard serve on the Legislative Ethics Committee. They recused themselves from hearing the complaint. Later, the committee dismissed the complaint as it relates to all three, according to phone interviews with Fitch and Woodard and Lowe’s dismissal letter obtained by The N&O.

Fitch said in the phone interview he recused himself to avoid appearance of impropriety. “At this time I have nothing else to say about it,” Fitch said.


Before the committee’s findings, Woodard also told The N&O: “I deny the allegation that was made against me.”


He added: “Regardless of what I think about the complaint, it deserves to have a full and fair hearing from an unbiased panel.”

Smith’s complaint asked that Fitch and Lowe be expelled from the Senate. It asked for the censure of Woodard as well as Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale “for their conduct including sexual harassment, verbal insults and assaults, creating a hostile work environment.” In an interview, Smith said she was not accusing Tillman of sexual harassment, but rather bullying.


Tillman has not responded to emails sent to him and an aide by The News & Observer.


The complaint also makes allegations unrelated to assault or sexual harassment against several other senators.


The complaint includes a February 2019 Unlawful Workplace Harassment Complaint that makes allegations of two instances of sexual harassment in April and May 2018 by a senator — who Smith said in interviews with the N&O and ProPublica is Fitch. The same harassment complaint includes a sexual harassment allegation in December 2018, which she said in interviews with the N&O and ProPublica involved Woodard. That same complaint alleges bullying and verbal insults, which Smith said was Lowe.


That February 2019 complaint was filed after she met with Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, Senate leader Phil Berger and other staff in January 2019, when they discussed different paths to resolution, according to documents obtained by the N&O. Other proposed remedies included legislation.


In a recent interview, Smith said the April 2020 ethics complaint was the result of that process. Smith said the timing of this recent ethics complaint reflects how long it has taken to follow the process.


Smith described in interviews the details of her sexual harassment allegations, which involve multiple comments by Fitch and a single comment from Woodard. Some of the incidents she described happened in one-on-one conversations; others she said were witnessed, but the people she named as witnesses did not agree to interviews with the N&O.


Ford, the former senator, said Smith told him about a conversation with Fitch she described as sexual harassment more than a year ago, but that he did not witness anything.


“That’s not something that I was ever confronted with, ever, nor condone it if present,” he said.[…]




The Legislative Ethics Committee is bipartisan and includes women and men.


Complaints to the committee are not public records, nor are the meeting minutes. The committee produces an annual report that shows only the number of complaints, meetings, and action taken.


The LEC can dismiss complaints — which is what happened last week — or investigate them and take action that includes public and private admonishment.


In the LEC report for the period from December 2016 through November 2017, two complaints were filed and both were dismissed. Complaints may also be referred to the House and Senate for further action, or referred for criminal prosecutions. No complaints were filed last year.


In the LEC’s report for the period from December 2017 through November 2018, there was one complaint and the result was private admonishment.


Smith is the primary sponsor on a proposed bill for the 2020 session, SB 786, called Be Heard in the Workplace. The bill, filed earlier in May, would raise the minimum wage of tipped employees, and define protected classes and unlawful discriminatory practices in the workplace.


“At the end of the day I realize that I have to be the change that I want to see,” Smith said. “Why is this [process] so difficult?”


In interviews with The News & Observer and ProPublica, Smith described her complaints that she said were not taken seriously enough by Blue. Leslie Rudd, spokesperson for Blue’s office, said that formal and informal processes were used to address complaint allegations by Smith.


“We found that the system does not have a strong path to check and respond to legislator accusations,” Rudd said.


“This is why Senator Blue filed Senate bill 660 last year, to help form a more defined complaint process. All allegations deserve to be heard and properly vetted,” Rudd said.


SB 660, filed in April 2019, never made it out of committee.


The bill, titled “Gen. Assembly/Prevent Workplace Harassment” was primarily sponsored by Smith, Blue and Sen. Valerie Foushee — all Democrats. The bill would make the General Assembly develop and implement mandatory ethics training to prevent workplace harassment and other workplace discrimination as well as create a complaint filing process.