RALEIGH — The lead investigator at the State Board of Elections said Wednesday that board chairman Larry Leake ordered her not to interview some witnesses during a probe into 42 undisclosed campaign flights by Gov. Bev Perdue.
Kim Strach, the deputy director of campaign finance at the board, said Leake, who like Perdue is a Democrat, told her to end her investigation without interviewing Zach Ambrose, the governor's longtime chief of staff and campaign manager.
Ambrose was on vacation, and Leake told Strach there was not enough time to wait for him to return, both officials said. Strach said she wanted to ask Ambrose about an unreported flight the governor took to Michigan and an audit he performed of campaign flights. She also wanted to interview at least two other Perdue staffers.
"The chairman said I should just put the report together without doing that," Strach said.
The five-member State Board of Elections is appointed by the governor, with the majority of seats held by the governor's party. Since 1993, when Leake was first appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt, Democrats have controlled the board.
Leake, a Mars Hill lawyer whom Perdue reappointed last year, also sat in as Strach interviewed other members of the governor's staff about the flights on private aircraft. Flights provided to candidates must be reported as donations under state law.
The detailed report that Strach wrote was edited by supervisors to remove references to restrictions placed on her during the investigation into flights by Perdue and other 2008 candidates for governor.
Leake said he was trying to assist Strach in getting the report completed in a timely manner. A public records request for the report had been filed by The News & Observer, and Republican Party officials had complained that the investigation was taking too long, Leake said.
"Kim is suggesting to you that if she could have had until next Christmas that she could have done better," Leake said. "We needed to bring this investigation to an end. 'End' doesn't mean whitewashed."
In a June 25 letter released with the investigative report, elections director Gary Bartlett said "no evidence surfaced indicating any intent of wrongdoing."
Strach, who has worked on the board's staff since 2000, could now be sidelined.
A provision approved in the waning moments of this year's legislative session provides $100,000 to hire a lawyer whom board members expect to take responsibility for investigations of campaigns. Two other positions for investigators were also approved.
Leake and Bartlett said they would like to see Strach focus on a backlog of more than 1,000 campaign finance reports that have gone unaudited while staff time was dedicated to other priorities.
Bartlett said he asked legislative leaders and the Perdue administration for the money for the positions. It was included in the budgets proposed by the governor and approved by the legislature, but the $100,000 for the lawyer was dropped from the final budget approved this month. The funding was restored in a vote on a separate bill at 3:21 a.m. Saturday, just before the body adjourned.
Chrissy Pearson, Perdue's spokeswoman, said the governor had supported the request in order to strengthen the Board of Elections. She said the idea that the positions were funded to sideline Strach is false. "We certainly were not involved," she said.
Accusations of conflict
Perdue's campaign did not properly disclose a total of more than $56,000 in air travel during the 2004 and 2008 elections, according to the board's investigation.
Though Perdue's campaign amended its campaign reports during the last year to include 41 previously undisclosed flights paid for by donors, the investigation Strach led uncovered a 42nd flight.
In September 2007, Perdue flew to a Michigan fundraiser where she received nearly $30,000 in donations.
In April, as Strach pressed the Perdue campaign to hand over documents related to its undisclosed flights, an attorney for the campaign sent a letter asking that Strach step aside because her husband is a lawyer who has worked for the state Republican Party.
Strach, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter, said that she did not see her husband's job as a conflict, and that it had not arisen during her previous investigations. Her husband has since resigned as general counsel of the party.
Fetzer sees obstruction
Tom Fetzer, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Leake's close management of Strach's investigation amounted to obstruction, especially the direction to close the probe without interviewing Ambrose, who resigned last year. Fetzer filed a campaign finance complaint with the elections board in October, triggering the investigation.
"Ambrose was Perdue's chief of staff and campaign manager during the time that these illegal flights occurred," Fetzer said. "For her not to be able to interview him is a glaring example of an attempt by the Board of Elections to mitigate the damage to Perdue."
The board is to take up the investigation's findings this summer.
Fetzer questioned whether Leake could be impartial. Leake attended a Perdue fundraiser this year.
Leake said Wednesday that he was a guest at the governor's birthday party, which was a fundraiser, but that he had not made a donation. He pointed to his record on the board over the past 17 years, including his role in the 2009 hearings into unreported flights and other violations by the Easley campaign that led to a $100,000 fine.
"I was closer to Easley, and had known him longer than Perdue," Leake said. "Let's get real. The two Republicans on the board of elections were nominated by the Republican Party chairman. Everyone on the board is a partisan politico. They wouldn't be there if they were not. The fact that you might be a partisan Democrat does not mean you don't have the ability to be fair and judicious."
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