Attorney involved in Helms-era postcards

Justice officials opposed tactic

Staff WriterDecember 21, 2009 

— An earlier phase of the career of attorney Thomas Farr, who has been tapped by the new majority of the Wake County school board to review the district's legal affairs, included involvement in planning Republican "ballot security" measures in the 1980s and 1990s.

Justice Department officials under President George H.W. Bush said these measures were intended to intimidate thousands of African-American residents and discourage them from voting in a 1990 U.S. Senate election. The North Carolina race was between incumbent and eventual winner Sen. Jesse Helms and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American.

According to a Justice Department complaint in February 1992, Farr, who was not named as a defendant, "had been involved in past ballot security efforts on behalf of Senator [Jesse] Helms and/or the defendant North Carolina Republican Party."

"He was certainly involved in the scheme as it was being developed," Gerald Hebert, who worked on the case as a Justice Department attorney, said of Farr. Hebert is now executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

Justice department lawyers said in the complaint that tens of thousands of postcards sent to heavily African-American precincts falsely told voters that they could be found ineligible to vote based on several conditions involving place and length of residence.

The complaint was settled when the Helms campaign and other defendants, while denying they were engaged in a campaign of intimidation, signed a consent judgment that prohibited the defendants from conducting any ballot security programs or other activities aimed at intimidating black voters.

Repeated efforts to reach Farr by telephone were unsuccessful. Asked about the case, Wake County Republican Party Chairman Claude E. Pope Jr. said he was not aware of the events.

"That was so long ago," he said.

Pope said people of any race, background or religious affiliation are welcome in the Wake County Republican Party.

But state Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary Democrat, said she found the board's choice of Farr disturbing, particularly if he were to replace long-time board law firm Tharrington Smith, which has represented dozens of North Carolina school boards. According to the online biography prepared by Ogletree Deakins, Farr's law firm, Farr has concentrated on "workplace law representing management, complex litigation, and constitutional law."

"The object of everyone who is elected to the school board is to provide a top-quality 21st-century education to every child in Wake County," Weiss said.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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