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Unaware of hoops deal, Currituck officials say

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Commissioner Paul Beaumont

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Mike Hall picture.jpg
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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A majority of Currituck County commissioners say they weren't aware the county paid a firm owned by Rep. Bob Steinburg to sponsor a basketball tournament – and several also opposed the expense.

Last year, County Manager Dan Scanlon signed a $50,000 agreement with the WolfeStein Group to buy naming rights and promotional services for an NCAA basketball tournament. That tournament is the “Visitcurrituckobx.com Battle in the Blue Ridge” that's scheduled at the US Cellular Center in Asheville over Thanksgiving weekend.

Steinburg, who owns the WolfeStein Group, is adamant that the arrangement is both legal and ethical. Scanlon has said the same, and that Currituck vetted the contract as it would any other. He also had authority as manager to approve the contract without commissioners' approval, he explained.

Had commissioners been asked for approval, however, it's not clear a majority would have given it. Commissioners Paul Beaumont, Mike Hall, Kitty Etheridge and Bob White claimed in interviews this week they knew little or nothing about the sponsorship before it was approved in December 2017. Chairman Bobby Hanig and Vice Chairman Mike Payment said they were aware of and supported the deal. Commissioner Marion Gilbert did not return a request for comment this week.

“I was completely unaware of this,” Beaumont said in an interview this week of hiring Steinburg's firm. He recalled that Steinburg first mentioned a potential sponsorship in 2016, but he was “noncommittal” about it.

Beaumont also said the suggestion of doing business with a state lawmaker put him in an “uncomfortable position.”

Given the public perception the contract could create, Beaumont also said “it was disturbing it was not brought before all of us,” referring to other county commissioners. The tournament sponsorship was sent to Currituck's tourism office before Scanlon approved it.

Asked if the sponsorship was a good investment, Beaumont expressed skepticism. The county signed the deal before knowing which teams would be in the tournament, he said. He took issue with one, Gardner-Webb University, of Boiling Springs. It's a small university and the median family income for its students is smaller than what Currituck normally targets, he said.

“I don't know how successful it will be,” he said of the sponsorship.

Hall said he remembered some preliminary discussion about the tournament as well, but said he was surprised when the deal was approved. The last he recalled, there were questions about who the county would reach by buying the naming rights for a tournament.

“I've never talked to Bob Steinburg about it,” Hall said of the sponsorship. He's still uncertain whether he would have supported the deal, he added.

Hall also said he was “very much” concerned about the public perception of doing business with a lawmaker's firm, and said he wishes Scanlon had notified commissioners about it.

“He should have told all of us about it,” Hall said.

Etheridge said she had heard about the tournament, but didn't know about Steinburg's involvement.

“I think we should have discussed it in an open meeting,” Etheridge said of the sponsorship.

Etheridge also said she would have opposed hiring Steinburg's firm out of concerns over its political appearance. She also said she didn't consider the sponsorship the best use of Currituck's tourism dollars. One of the participating universities, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, is right next to another tourism destination, Wrightsville Beach, she noted.

White, a member of Currituck's Tourism Advisory Board, also said in a brief interview earlier this week he didn't know the county had hired Steinburg's firm.

In followup interviews this week, Steinburg strongly defended his conduct in offering Currituck the sponsorship.

Steinburg stressed he sought an ethical opinion from General Assembly staff before pursuing business dealings with a government he represents. He said he spoke with Erika Churchill, a staffer to the Legislative Ethics Committee, and she cleared the arrangement. Steinburg repeatedly encouraged The Daily Advance to speak with Churchill this week.

Churchill responded Thursday that any ethical guidance she provides lawmakers is confidential, unless lawmakers waive that confidentiality. Steinburg did so in an email, but Churchill did not respond to multiple requests for comment on her conversation with him.

As to not informing all commissioners about the sponsorship offer, Steinburg said he initially approached a few commissioners about the proposal. They told him to direct the request to the tourism office, and that's what he did, he said.

Steinburg also said Beaumont seemed “extremely enthusiastic” about the proposal at first.

Steinburg also maintained the tournament will be of great benefit to Currituck. All coverage of the event is supposed to use its full name, including “visitcurrituckobx.com,” he said, which should help generate widespread radio, TV and online exposure for Currituck. To buy advertisements with that broad a reach would be far more expensive, he said.

Steinburg also said his goal in offering the sponsorship to Currituck was to help promote a county he serves. He rejected claims there was any “quid pro quo” in asking Currituck do business with him.

He said he's worked hard to represent Currituck's interests in his six years as a lawmaker, and he would continue to do so while in office.

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