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Update: NHC commissioner apologizes for emails that may have broken state law

An email sent by Bill Rivenbark, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Bill Rivenbark, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged that his emails "may have been improper," and ran contrary to his ethics training. His response came after he likely violated a state law commonly interpreted as a prohibition against elected officials using their government email accounts to conduct campaign business. A policy expert who weighed in on the issue said Rivenbark did appear to have broken the law — but that it might have been unintentional, adding that it was not "a cardinal sin."

Note: This report initially appeared at WECT.com and is being republished here with permission. You can find the original version here.

Update 12:10 p.m. — Chairman Bill Rivenbark responded to WHQR's request for comment with a statement.

"I did not realize my brief email replies to a few constituents may have been improper, although I should have known due to our ethics training. I have since reviewed the guidelines and take full responsibility for my mistake. I apologize for this oversight and commit to ensuring it does not happen again," Rivenbark wrote in an email.

On June 17, 2024, hours after the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners voted to defund the controversial nonprofit Port City United, all five commissioners received multiple emails to their joint email account.

WECT obtained eight emails from the county’s public email server, all of which thanked commissioners for defunding PCU, despite the split 3-2vote.

Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield Jr. voted against the proposed budget with the PCU cuts.

Dane Scalise, LeAnn Pierce, and Bill Rivenbark outvoted the two, putting an end to the program.

In response to two emails from constituents, Commission Chair Bill Rivenbark sent two replies asking the respective sender to vote for himself and fellow Commissioner Dane Scalise in the upcoming election in November.

The first reply was sent at 7:00 p.m. saying, “Remember to vote for Dane and I in November”.

The second was sent at 9:12 p.m. saying, “Remember to vote in November for Dane and I. Thanks”.

Both responses were sent through Rivenbark’s government email.

Political experts told WECT that because Rivenbark responded through his government email, asking constituents to explicitly vote for him, that’s a violation of North Carolina law.

“A fair reading of state law would say that the political use of government emails by county officials is prohibited,” Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a political policy professor at Duke University, said.

North Carolina statute 153A‑99 on county employee political activity states, “No employee may use county funds, supplies, or equipment for partisan purposes, or political purposes except where such political uses are otherwise permitted by law.”

That same statute also states, “No employee while on duty or in the workplace may use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or nomination for political office.”

McCorkle said while this action may not have been intentional, Rivenbark is in violation of state law.

“I can’t say that this is a cardinal sin. People who get in elected office a lot of times are responding and not thinking. So, I don’t know that I wouldn’t attribute a lot of intentionality to like, ‘Oh, I’m going to use my government email for wrong purposes. Here, I’d go.’ I don’t think that’s probably what’s here. But again, technically, from a literal reading of state law, which you’ve probably read, and I’ve let read, is it this is a violation,” he said.

Commissioners reaction

In a statement to WECT, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. said, “It is truly disappointing that our county commission chair chose to violate principle and the rules around campaign finance laws. This is something county employees are strictly forbidden to do. We should all know better.”

Commissioner LeAnne Pierce told WECT over the phone, “It’s not my style. It’s not what I would’ve done, but I guess we would have to discuss the discipline part of it amongst ourselves.”

Commissioner Rob Zapple also told WECT in a phone call, “Speaking for myself, it’s certainly part of our ethics training as commissioners that you don’t use county materials to promote yourself while running for office.”

WECT has reached out via email and phone calls to Commissioner Rivenbark and Commissioner Scalise and has not heard back as of Monday, June 24.

Copyright 2024 WECT. All rights reserved.

Ava Brendgord joined the WECT team in July of 2023 as a reporter/ multimedia journalist.

Ava was born and raised in Houston, TX. She graduated from Penn State University in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and a double minor in digital media trends and analytics and political science.

During her time at Penn State, Ava worked as an anchor and reporter for the Centre County Report, an award-winning newscast aired across 29 counties in Central Pennsylvania. She also interned with ABC 23/ FOX 8 in Central PA and KPRC 2 News in Houston.

Ava’s life-long passion for storytelling and local news has led her to WECT. Growing up, Ava visited the Carolina beaches frequently, and is thrilled to finally call Wilmington home. She is most excited to trade the Texas heat and humidity for life on the coast.

Outside of the newsroom, Ava loves to spend time with friends and family, cook, hang out by the beach, and watch Penn State Football!

Have a story idea? You can email Ava at Ava.Brendgord@wect.com or you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.