Wake school board buzz persists

Pope, Farr speak to roles

Staff WritersDecember 22, 2009 

— Partisan storms surrounding the Wake County school board continued Monday, with Republican power broker Art Pope downplaying his role in the election of GOP-backed candidates to the board.

And attorney Thomas Farr, selected as special interim counsel by the board, spoke to clarify his role in controversial mailings by Sen. Jesse Helms' campaigns in 1984 and 1990.

A 1992 U.S. Justice Department complaint said the Helms campaign sent postcards designed to intimidate tens of thousands of registered voters in heavily black districts during the 1990 U.S. Senate election. The complaint described Farr as a participant in meetings about the mailing and said he had been involved in earlier "ballot security" efforts.

However, Farr said on Monday that he had limited contact with campaign officials before the 1990 mailing and advised them not to send the postcards. His chief involvement was representing the defendants in negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department under which the defendants agreed to take no further actions to intimidate black voters, he said.

"It's not correct to say that I was involved in any respect with the construction of that card that was sent out, the language of the card, and who the card was sent to," Farr said. "The first thing I knew of those matters was after the fact, when I was called in to act as counsel for various parties in this matter."

Farr's statement was echoed by Carter Wrenn, Helms' chief strategist, who was involved in the late senator's 1990 campaign against then-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American and the Democratic nominee. In ane-mail, Wrenn took responsibility for the mailings, calling them a "mistake" and making a reference to Raleigh defense attorney Wade Smith, a former state Democratic Party chairman and founding partner of Tharrington Smith, the law firm that advises the school board.

"I was the one who made the mistake, and saying Tom's somehow responsible is like saying Wade [Smith] would be responsible for a murder because he defended the murderer," Wrenn wrote.

Farr also said Monday that he advised the Helms organization in 1984 against using undeliverable postcards returned to the campaign as evidence that the Democratic voters who received them should be challenged at polling places.

State Rep. Rosa Gill, a Raleigh Democrat and former Wake school board chairwoman, was skeptical of Farr's assertion. "It's a moral issue," she said. "Do you always defend someone who is guilty?"

Pope was credited by a local GOP party official with crafting strategies in an October election that earned school board seats for three Republican-backed candidates and landed an allied candidate, John Tedesco, in a runoff that he ultimately won. In an Oct. 7 e-mail from Wake County Republican Party finance chair Marc Scruggs to incumbent board member Ron Margiotta, Scruggs said the GOP had implemented Pope's plan and that it "worked very well."

The election resulted in the new members' and Margiotta's gaining a majority on the nine-member board, with the ability to advance their agenda, including ending the system's diversity policy and mandated year-round schools. Margiotta is now chairman of the school board.

Pope downplayed Scruggs' e-mail message.

"It was very nice of him to give me credit," Pope said. "But to say I was the architect was overstated."

Pope said he gave advice and suggestions to Wake GOP chairman Claude Pope, a distant cousin. But Art Pope said Claude Pope made the final decisions on campaign strategy.

Art Pope also said he had raised money for candidates supported by the Wake GOP, including those running for school board. But he said he has been raising money and helping local Republicans for 25 years.

Pope said he hardly knows Margiotta. Pope also said he doesn't believe he has been in communication with board members since the election. He defended the board's new majority.

"I believe that the left's attack that the new school board will bring resegregation and racism is deliberately false and malicious," Pope said.

Pope denied that he had urged the board hire Farr. He said he hadn't known it was going to happen until after the board voted. But he praised the decision, calling Farr "an excellent attorney."

Gill was skeptical of Art Pope's denial that he was directing the new school board's actions.

"Somebody is directing their actions," said Gill, who was on the school board for nearly 10 years. "Who that someone is, I don't know. His name keeps coming up."

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

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