The state Democratic Party on Thursday forfeited more than $24,000 to the state Board of Elections to "address and resolve" questions about the party's role in past donations of flights and gifts that are tied to the campaign of former Gov. Mike Easley.
The state party's chairman, David Young, said party officials had believed that seven donations of flights and gifts made in 2003 and 2004 had gone to the party. However, he said, there are now questions about whether the party received the benefit.
Young said in a letter to state elections chairman Larry Leake that the payment was to show a "good faith effort to fully comply with the law."
The development follows reports in The News & Observer in May about flights provided for Easley. Records released earlier this year by Gov. Beverly Perdue indicated that some of the flights in question were provided by businessmen to take Easley to or from his own fundraisers.
The forfeiture on Thursday represented the value of six donations of flights and a gift of holiday decorations that records indicate were provided to the party in 2003 and 2004 by six people, including former N.C. State trustee McQueen Campbell and former DOT board member Cameron McRae. All of the contributions were "in-kind" donations, meaning a service (such as air travel) or item was provided instead of money.
But the question has been whether those donations actually were meant for the Easley campaign all along, but just not accounted for that way.
"We do not know that these contributions were improper," Democratic Party chairman Young wrote, "and until questions were recently raised, had no reason whatsoever to believe that they might be improper."
Attempts to reach Easley's campaign lawyer as well as a spokesman were not successful. Easley, a Democrat, left office in January after two terms.
In an interview, Leake said the payment from the party represents a "penalty" for contributions the party listed as receiving but for which it does not seem to have benefited.
Leake announced the forfeiture at an elections board meeting in which he said a criminal inquiry of the Easley campaign is continuing. He said the campaign and governor are cooperating. Leake said the payment Thursday does not end the elections probe.
"The truth will come out," Leake said. "It's fair to say that we still have concerns."
Leake indicated that open hearings about the Easley campaign's activities could take place in September.
The question of who received the donations is of interest to elections officials because, in the case of the flights, the donors in some cases could not have provided the travel directly to Easley. The flight donations would have put some of the donors over campaign contribution limits.
In its disclosure reports, the Easley campaign had reported getting in-kind donations of the same amount forfeited Thursday but said it received the donations from the state Democratic Party -- not from the individual donors.
Young wrote in his letter that the "facts and circumstances" of the contributions may never be known, but the party had decided to forfeit the amount that matched the donations to end its part in any questions.
A complaint filed last week by a campaign watchdog group, Democracy North Carolina, said there were "troubling patterns" related to travel for Easley and "possible misuse of the N.C. Democratic Party as a conduit."
Democracy North Carolina's executive director, Bob Hall, attended the meeting Thursday and said that what took place with the party and the Easley campaign was not an accident.
"I think it is on purpose," Hall said. "The lawyers will argue about it, but an ordinary person would recognize that this was a way to game the system."
Separately Thursday, the Easley campaign said it was forfeiting $2,720 in improper contributions, mostly for refund checks it had made to donors but that were never cashed.
Previously, the Easley campaign's lawyer had told elections officials it was working to update reports.
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