The North Carolina Republican Party blasted Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper last month over reports that the state Division of Motor Vehicles opened a special-access driver’s license office exclusively for state employees.
"As hundreds of North Carolinians face long lines at DMV offices around the state, Governor Cooper created a secret DMV office just for his friends," the NCGOP said in an Aug. 28 Facebook post, which linked to an original report from WBTV in Charlotte.
We were intrigued by the statement, which received more than 275 shares on Facebook, so we decided to take a look for ourselves.
According to the WBTV report, the DMV had been running a driver’s license office from its Raleigh headquarters building since January. The office was not open to the public, and a sign outside said, "No driver license or ID issued at this location."
The so-called "model office" was located in a training room where staffers test new equipment. It opened for a few days each month between January and August, but access to it was limited to state employees who received a sign-up invitation by email, as well as their family and friends, the WBTV report said.
Several "senior employees" from Cooper’s office were among those who had scheduled 20-minute appointments, according to the WBTV report.
These quick appointments would have been desirable to the public, because there have been significant lines at DMV offices across the state. On Aug. 8, DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup told The News & Observer the long wait times were due to residents seeking Real IDs before October 2022, when the federal government is set to begin requiring stricter identification to board commercial flights.
WBTV reported that DMV spokesman John Brockwell originally denied that the special-access office existed, and a security guard told a WBTV reporter wearing a hidden camera that the office was reserved for state employees.
WRAL News later reported that Jessup said it was not a secret or "something we are hiding." In another video from CBS17, Jessup told reporter Michael Hyland there was "nothing secret about it," and that the office was not open to the public because it was "behind secure doors."
A DMV statement explaining the office likened it to temporary "mobile units" the DMV set up for large employers across the state. The statement said both practices represented "targeted outreach as part of an effort to get REAL IDs to North Carolinians who need them ahead of the federal deadline."
The statement also said the office had closed. But Jeff Hauser, communications director for the state GOP, pointed out in an email interview that it "had been used for months and seemingly had no intention of being shut down until the story broke."
Hauser said the "description (secret) comes from the multiple news stories about the office itself as well as the Merriam-Webster definition." He noted that the dictionary defines as secret anything "kept from knowledge or view," "marked by the habit of discretion," "revealed only to the initiated" or "not acknowledged."
The office was not advertised or accessible to the public. It opened for a few days each month to state employees who received an email invitation and their family and friends, and Brockwell, the DMV spokesman, did not originally acknowledge it, according to the WBTV report.
So at least on the surface, the office does seem to satisfy multiple definitions of the word secret.
But Ford Porter, press secretary for the governor’s office, said the evidence suggests otherwise. "It isn’t a secret if you’re mass emailing and calling all state government," he said. "That suggests to me that it was a little bit more open than not."
Nicole Meister, director of communications for the state Department of Transportation, explained that the office was not suitable for public use. "It’s by no means an actual office," she said, adding that it was several floors upstairs and in a training room filled with testing equipment.
"We did not put out a press release opening it up to the general public because it’s not a setup that can accommodate the general public," she said. "Not only is there security that you have to go through, but you have to line through hallways to go up to a fifth floor and it’s a small kind of two offices that are one."
After communicating with all state agencies to as part of its Real ID outreach, the DMV extended model-office invitations first to its own staff and DOT employees, Meinster said. But then multiple state agencies asked for mobile units like the ones sent to major corporations, so the DMV decided to extend the invitation to employees at some of those agencies, as well.
"The vast majority of those to get their Real ID at the training office were rank and file state employees," Meister said.
The state agencies that received invitations to the model office included the departments of public safety, agriculture, cultural resources, military and veteran affairs and revenue, as well as the Office of State Human Resources, Meister said.
Meister and Porter said the Office of State Human Resources shared information about the model office with the governor’s office.
Reducing wait times
This was all meant to speed up the dissemination of Real IDs. "It was open to any state employee, but those are also people that you’re keeping out of DMV lines at other offices," Meister said. "That was the thought process behind it."
And who was behind that thought process?
Meister said the idea for the model office came from a DMV committee’s brainstorming session about ways to accommodate more people who wanted Real IDs. "This had nothing to do with the governor’s office," she said, adding that the training room itself has been around since 1996.
"This was DMV employees just talking about how can we get people signed up to get their Real IDs," she said.
We found no other evidence to suggest Cooper was directly behind the office’s creation, even though some workers from his office took advantage of the setup. At the same time, however, Jessup and the DMV are overseen by Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon, who is a member of Cooper’s cabinet.
"Cooper is responsible for his employees’ actions," said Hauser.
Still, the office was not reserved "just for (Cooper’s) friends." The DMV sent invitations to state employees of various state agencies in the same way that it provided employees of private companies special access to temporary mobile units, according to the DMV statement.
"They reached out to every agency, not just the ones that the Cooper administration oversees," Porter said. "The governor didn’t create it, and it wasn’t exclusive to the office (of the governor) or any of his friends."
Meister also said both Cooper and his wife obtained Real IDs at regular DMV license offices.
The NCGOP Facebook account said, "As hundreds of North Carolinians face long lines at DMV offices around the state, Governor Cooper created a secret DMV office just for his friends."
The statement referred to an office first reported by WBTV that offered quick appointments for state employees and their associates. The office was not acknowledged, open or advertised to the public, but Meister said that was because it could not accommodate the general public.
The DMV commissioner falls under the leadership of the Cooper administration, but Porter said Cooper did not play any direct role in the office’s creation, and we found no evidence to suggest otherwise. Plus, the DMV granted access to the office to state employees from several different agencies, not just Cooper’s friends.
The state GOP’s claim makes it sound like Cooper opened a special office just for his closest buddies so they could avoid long lines. But the model office’s creation was not that nefarious, even if it was kept secret.
Overall, the state GOP’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to list October 2020, not October 2022, as the date when the federal government is due to start requiring stricter identification for flights.