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Sen. Tillis testifies in NC legislative bias case

RALEIGH (AP) North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis left his seat on Capitol Hill briefly for one on the witness stand May 18 in an employee discrimination case from his time as a top state legislative leader.

The Republican senator testified why as state House speaker in 2011 he wanted to remove the director of the General Assembly’s nonpartisan fiscal analysis office. Marilyn Chism resigned months after GOP legislators took majorities in the state House and Senate simultaneously for the first time in 140 years.

Chism, a black woman who worked at the General Assembly for 13 years and became director in 2009, filed complaints and litigation against the General Assembly, accusing legislative leaders of illegally forcing her resignation based on her race and gender. Under questioning by a state government attorney, Tillis denied they played any role.

“None whatsoever,” Tillis said several times during his four hours of testimony. Chism also testified this week in the Raleigh courtroom.

The case has worked its way up and down the federal courts and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in 2013 determined she had been discriminated against because of race. An administrative law judge began hearing her complaint this week, and must decide whether bias occurred and if so, whether to order the legislative branch to pay monetary damages. Tillis and other Republican legislators and staff are not named as individual defendants.

Tillis said he wanted Chism out because she wasn’t doing a good enough job leading the agency tasked with helping lawmakers assemble the state budget when North Carolina government faced a more than $2 billion shortfall. Tillis testified his decision was based on input from staff, fellow House Republicans and his own observations, and after consultation with Senate leader Phil Berger.

“I expect my leaders to lead … I expect them to fill the gaps with staff,” Tillis told Senior Deputy Attorney General Ann Matthews, adding he “did not see that same skill set in what I saw with Ms. Chism.”

Chism contends she was forced out by white male leaders and staff within both the House and Senate, and while leaders of other General Assembly divisions – also all white and male – kept their positions. A white male also succeeded her as director.

Her complaint said a Tillis aide also was unhappy with how the fiscal agency calculated the cost to implement a proposed voter identification bill in 2011, saying it was too high. Black legislators, the NAACP and state Democrats strongly opposed the voter ID bill, saying it would make it more difficult for minority residents to vote.

Tillis, who served as speaker for four years before defeating Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, testified he knew about the voter ID flap and discussed it with his aide. Tillis downplayed the issue, saying the cost didn’t make much difference when the state spends more than $20 billion annually.

On cross-examination, Chism attorney Stewart Fisher pressed Tillis why he didn’t meet with Chism to help improve her leadership skills and be more assertive, instead of simply seeking her resignation. Fisher also cited emails showing Chism ready to help House members develop their budget, as well as a presentation she made to House members that ended with a standing ovation, as evidence she did her job ably.

Fisher said Tillis attempted to plug the diversity within his Senate office, including a black woman serving as his legislative director.

Scheduling conflicts meant the case wouldn’t finish May 18. Instead, Administrative Law Judge George Jordan planned to resume the hearing later this year.

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