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OUR VIEWS

Steinburg shouldn't have mixed private, public roles

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Sunday, August 5, 2018

State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, says he didn’t break any laws or ethics rules when his new sports marketing company signed a $50,000 contract with Currituck County last year to facilitate the county’s sponsorship of a college basketball tournament in Asheville this fall.

While that may be so, it doesn’t mean the lawmaker should have sought a taxpayer-funded contract from a county he represents in the Legislature, or that Currituck officials should have given it to him.

Regardless of Steinburg’s claim that the sponsorship agreement is worth a “million dollars” in promotional advertising for Currituck, or county officials’ description of the tournament as a “good marketing effort,” the contract is an example of government at its worst. It is the poster child for why citizens distrust government at all levels and believe it only works for insiders.

First of all, Currituck spends millions of dollars a year on tourism promotion, but it had never spent a dime on sponsoring a sports tournament until Steinburg showed up last year with the idea it pay to sponsor the “Battle in the Blue Ridge” NCAA tournament in Asheville. Steinburg also just happened to have a way to “help” Currituck sponsor the tournament: he owns a sports marketing company, the WolfeStein Group, that he formed with a partner in early 2017. According to Steinburg, the firm is paid to set up basketball tournaments and find sponsors for them. Steinburg actually approached Currituck about sponsoring a basketball tournament in 2016 — before he formed WolfStein. However, because that event would have been played in Ohio and featured “out-of-market” teams for Currituck, county officials declined his offer, claiming it wouldn’t have been worth the money.

Because the Battle of the Blue Ridge is played in North Carolina, and because all four teams slated to compete are from what Currituck considers “target markets” for tourism, county officials decided to accept Steinburg’s second pitch. The visitcurrituckOBX.com Battle in the Blue Ridge — naming rights to the tournament is one of the things Currituck’s $50,000 is paying for — is slated for the weekend after Thanksgiving at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville. The four teams competing are Gardner-Webb, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Arkansas State and Eastern Illinois. Besides securing naming rights to the tournament, which it’s already done, the WolfeStein Group’s contract requires it to promote and market the event to local and national networks and aggressively push ticket sales “to help ensure large crowds.”

Even though all four schools competing in the visitCurrituckOBX.com tournament had losing records in their respective conferences last year, drawing a crowd for basketball in North Carolina is never a problem. So, as far as basketball fans pay attention to such things, Steinburg and Currituck officials may be right when they say the county will get some exposure from the event.

Some have questioned the value of Currituck spending tourism promotion dollars in another tourism-rich region — Asheville — or on trying to draw tourists from another beach community — Wilmington — to Currituck. But the unknown tourism return on Currituck’s investment of $50,000 in a basketball tournament isn’t what’s troubling here. What is troubling is Steinburg’s decision to mix his private business interests with his public ones.

Don’t get us wrong: Steinburg has every right to make a living. As a part-time lawmaker, his annual salary is a paltry $14,000 a year. His right to make a private living, however, shouldn’t include seeking contracts from those who depend on him in his public role. After all, Currituck needs Steinburg’s legislative help — and will continue to need his help as long as he’s in the Legislature — on any number of matters. It’s hard to continue to say no to someone’s business interests when you depend on them for public business.

Steinburg has rejected the suggestion of any quid pro quo or “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” arrangement with Currituck, saying everything about his deal with the county was “above board.”

While there’s no evidence to the contrary, it is odd that not all seven commissioners were apprised of the WolfeStein contract until after the fact. Even though commissioners’ approval for the deal wasn’t required, it’s strange that not all of them were told about it. Indeed, a majority of commissioners have said, since finding out about the contract, that they would have opposed it had they known about it at the time. They apparently understand what Steinburg and two or three of their peers who did have prior knowledge do not: There is strong public revulsion to government officials seeking personal business deals with other government agencies over which they exercise some control. The potential for coercion, even if it’s not overt, is too great.

Self-described conservatives like Steinburg talk a lot about spending less on government and reducing its size. It’s interesting, though, that it’s government that they turn to when it’s their own personal interests that need promoting. It’s perhaps no accident that the upcoming tournament Steinburg is promoting does not carry the naming rights for a company in his district. That would have required getting private enterprise to take a chance on investing in his fledgling company. Why do that when it’s much easier to tap public funding sources like the millions Currituck collects every year in occupancy tax revenue and is required by state law to spend on tourism promotion?

This is one tourism promotion — and expense — that Currituck could have and should have done without. As for Steinburg being allowed to earn a living: He certainly does. But co-mingling official public responsibilities with a business relationship is sure to leave a sour and lasting taste in the public's mouth.

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