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Both Republican and Democratic super PACs are jumping in local races to criticize candidates this year. One tit-for-tat war has broken out in North Carolina, where the Senate Majority PAC, a pro-Democratic group, has publicized two-year-old dirt from the office of Thom Tillis, the state’s House Speaker and leading contender for the GOP Senate nomination.
The Senate Majority PAC, which supports Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, released an ad on April 15 reminding viewers of how two Tillis staffers -- one of whom he shared an apartment with -- got caught having affairs with lobbyists just days apart.
"Thom Tillis’ reaction?" the narrator said. "He claimed he was surprised by his roommate’s affair, but then rewarded both aides with taxpayer-paid bonuses."
The ad also specified that the staffers -- Charles Thomas and Amy Hobbs -- resigned. Tillis’ Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, released a similar radio ad.
Two days later, Tillis’ campaign offered a decidedly different take.
"Seen those ads attacking Thom Tillis?" the narrator said. "They’re false. Tillis fired the staffers."
Who’s right here? PolitiFact concludes that the Senate Majority PAC’s description of the situation -- not Tillis’ -- is closer to the truth.
What happened in 2012
The News & Observer, a newspaper based in Raleigh, N.C., reported that Charles Thomas, Tillis’ chief of staff and roommate, resigned in April 2012 after his affair with a lobbyist was caught on video. Less than one week later, policy analyst Amy Hobbs resigned after an affair of her own was exposed, the paper reported.
Tillis then offered the two former staffers a payment of one month’s salary -- $12,500 for Thomas and $6,833.33 for Hobbs. The listed purpose was "payment in lieu of notice," a term he took from Wikipedia that referred to a British policy. Under North Carolina law, Tillis wasn’t obligated to pay either staffer a month’s salary upon resignation.
In defending his decision to pay staffers, Tillis said, "I stand by my decision to accept their resignation while recognizing the difficult transition period they are now entering."
In other words, Tillis at the time did not claim that he had fired the staffers -- only accepted their resignations. This supports the pro-Democratic ad, and clashes with what Tillis’ 2014 ad claims.
Indeed, after our colleagues at FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker expressed skepticism about Tillis’ ad, his office now appears to be backing off the term "fired."
"Speaker Tillis initiated the action that resulted in the termination of employment. He asked for their resignations," Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw told PolitiFact.
That’s closer to Tillis’ initial phrasing, that he "accepted" the resignations, but it’s still not the same thing as "fired." And in any case, Tillis’ response ad was not aired with the "forced resignations" terminology that Tillis’ office began using after the fact.
Tillis’ ad called a pro-Democratic ad "false" for saying that he allowed two disgraced staffers in 2012 to "resign." But the news coverage at the time painted a different picture -- he accepted their resignations. This generally supports the Democratic ad’s description, so we rate Tillis’ claim Mostly False.
Email interview with Jordan Shaw, Thom Tillis campaign spokesman, April 25, 2014
Email interview with Ty Matsdorf, Senate Majority PAC spokesman, April 25, 2014
FactCheck.org, "Tillis response ad cries ‘false,’ " April 22, 2014
Washington Post, "A claim of ‘false’ when the ad is basically true," April 23, 2014
Kay Hagan for Senate, "Tillis tries to rewrite history in new ad," April 17, 2014
News & Observer, "Charles Thomas, N.C. speaker’s top aide, linked to lobbyist," April 27, 2012
News & Observer, "House speaker Tillis defends payments to ex-staffers," May 17, 2012
News & Observer, "Second Tillis staffer admits to inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist," May 1, 2012
News & Observer, "Speaker’s staffers receive a month of pay after resignations," May 17, 2012
Phone and email interviews with Sadie Weiner, Kay Hagan campaign spokeswoman, April 25, 2014
Senate Majority PAC, "Apartment," April 15, 2014
Thom Tillis, "Meddling," April 17, 2014
WRAL, "Hagan radio ads," April 17, 2014
WRAL, "Senate Majority PAC uses staffer scandal against Tillis," April 15, 2014
WRAL, "Tillis defends severance payments for disgraced staffers," May 17, 2012
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