RALEIGH, N.C. — He may have lost reelection as North Carolina’s state auditor last year, but Les Merritt still is on the case bird-dogging government.
Teaming up with former FBI agent Frank Perry, Merritt this year co-founded and serves as executive director of the Foundation for Ethics in
Public Service, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that aims to spur greater openness, accountability and integrity at all levels of government.
“We don’t really feel like the government will ever do a really good job at policing itself,” Merritt says. “We want to show as transparently as possible what’s happening that shouldn’t happen.”
With a staff of three people and a first-year operating budget of $500,000, the foundation focuses on suspected government wrongdoing throughout the United States and mainly investigates anonymous tips it receives through its website at www.reportpubliccorruption.org.
Based on its investigations, the foundation feeds information to news outlets serving regions in which the alleged government wrongdoing occurred, or to government investigators, or both.
Merritt, who served as state auditor from January 2005 to January 2009, says the need for government watchdogs is more critical than ever because the financial crisis in the newspaper industry has gutted investigative journalism.
“The news media needs all the help it can get,” he says.
Perry, the foundation’s director of investigations and public affairs, worked for the FBI for 22 years, and worked one year at the N.C Ethics Commission and 16 months as director of investigations at the State Auditor’s Office.
The foundation’s five-member board includes Raleigh developer Roddy Jones, and Kory Swanson, executive vice president of the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based think-tank and advocacy group that promotes free-market principles.
Also advising the group is a five-member advisory board that includes Orage Quarles III, president and publisher of The News & Observer, and a four-member journalism advisory committee that includes Don Carrington, a vice president of the John Locke Foundation, and Steve Daniels, co-anchor of ABC11 Eyewitness News.
The group raised most of its first-year funding through a challenge grant from the John William Pope Foundation, a big supporter of the John Locke Foundation, that Merritt’s group matched dollar for dollar.
It also has received funding from the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance, a group that promotes the use of new media tools advance economic freedom and individual liberty.
Merritt says he is counting on foundation grants and individual contributions, although his group also might generate some revenue from teaching ethics courses and online webinars.
“We’re going to have to be donor-sponsored for the most part and prove our worth,” he says. “In this business, you have to take the money out of it or lose your independence.”
The foundation, which already has received 100 tips, likely will open an office in Washington, D.C., Merritt says.
“The more that you shine that light on situations where there are things being done that aren’t right or are just an arrogant power grab, it will keep everybody honest,” he says. “Our function is to help that process, help that free flow of information.”