UNDER THE DOME

Willoughby urges crackdown on political donations

November 28, 2010 

Colon Willoughby, the longtime district attorney in Wake County, says legislators need to get tougher with big-money political donors who seek to circumvent the $4,000 limit on donations by giving employees or family members cash to then give to a campaign.

"I think it's probably appropriate that the legislature look at political fundraising and reporting and determine if we need some significant changes in our statutes," Willoughby said in an interview last week. "I think there needs to be review of excessive contributions and giving in the name of another, and whether that conduct should carry a more significant sanction than a Class 2 misdemeanor.

"I mean, it's one thing for someone to give a series of four or five checks and wind up giving $4,500 when the limit is $4,000. It's another thing when you give $25,000 or $50,000 or even $100,000 clandestinely. I think we need to make legal distinctions between what are less serious violations and what are more serious violations."

Willoughby was referring to the case against Rusty Carter, a Wilmington businessman and major Democratic fundraiser convicted of illegally funneling more than $150,000 to candidates that included Gov. Bev Perdue and Senate leader Marc Basnight. In a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to avoid jail time, Carter pleaded guilty earlier this year to a misdemeanor and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine.

Early next month, the State Board of Elections will hold a public hearing to examine whether former state Sen. Fred Hobbs made political contributions in the names of others. Elections board investigators have scrutinized about $150,000 in political contributions to campaigns, including those of Perdue and Basnight, by employees of the former lawmaker's engineering and surveying firm, Hobbs, Upchurch and Associates of Southern Pines.

Gibbs' ambitions

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made Politico.com's Top 10 quotes in American politics last week.

Gibbs' winning words?

"Well, I'm not going to - though I'd love to be the spokesperson for Warren Buffett. ... I bet that's a good gig."

The N.C. State University graduate was not pondering a new job, but rather answering a reporter's question about whether it was patriotic to campaign to pay more taxes if you're a millionaire.

His comment was met with laughter.

Order in court - and out

Just before Mike Easley entered a Wake County courtroom Tuesday, the assembled mass of reporters, photographers and cameramen there to cover the former governor's sentencing were called out into the hall and then herded into a neighboring courtroom.

Once inside, Ed Crump, a veteran reporter for WTVD, the Triangle's ABC affiliate, began delivering a warning from Chief Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens that the reporters needed to behave themselves, or else face contempt charges. And the judge didn't mean just in the courtroom. Crump warned reporters not to chase Easley down the stairwell after the hearing.

Considering Easley was about to become the first governor convicted of a felony in state history, most reporters would consider it their duty to follow him out of the courtroom and press him for comment. But another issue was why the judge's orders were being issued by a journalist, rather than an agent of the court.

Mark Binker, capital reporter for the Greensboro News & Record, gave voice to what many in the room were thinking, pressing Crump on why he was serving as the judge's lackey and accusing Stephens of not having the, um, gumption to give the warning in person.

Not one to let a good beef go, Binker followed up by chastising both the judge and the TV reporter in his blog:

"The judge's message is condescending at best. He assumes that a group of professional reporters is going to act like a bunch of feces-flinging monkeys. He also is delivering a couple different threats. Aside form the contempt warning, we got an additional warning from Crump that Stephens may decide to change the 'general rules for the courthouse' for everyone if things were to go badly. In essence, he was saying that North Carolina's supposedly open courts could get a little less open if Stephens doesn't like how we conduct ourselves.

"... Crump should have handed that task, respectfully, right back to the judge. As professional journalists, it is unseemly and unprofessional to communicate threats on behalf of the people we're supposed to be covering. There's a not-so-fine line between being friendly and respectful toward your sources, and being co-opted by them."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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