McCrory replaces all State Board of Elections members

lbonner@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2013 

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Larry Leake, chairman of the State Board of Elections during hearing into the Easley campaign.

2009 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday evening announced he was replacing all members of the State Board of Elections. The appointments take effect Wednesday – just as an investigation into political contributions made to McCrory and other top Republicans’ officeholders’ campaigns is getting underway.

Three Republicans and two Democrats will replace the current three-Democrat, two-Republican board. The board’s majority represents the governor’s party.

The move puts the progress of the board’s investigation into campaign contributions from an indicted sweepstakes software company owner in question.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, last week asked the board to investigate more than 60 campaign contributions totaling more than $230,000. Some of the contributions went to McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger.

A majority of sitting board members said they were interested in investigating, according to an Associated Press story. But on Friday night, Chairman Larry Leake said it would be inappropriate for members on their last day in office to talk about the investigation or give staff any direction. The board has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

“It might be presumptuous for us to attempt to do anything with a new board coming on May 1,” Leake said. “It makes no sense for our board to attempt to direct the conduct of our office when we are in fact exiting out the door.”

Gary Bartlett, the current executive director whose term ends May 15, said he supports Leake’s position. “I think that’s the right call because they are a lame-duck board,” he said.

As for the current inquiry led by staff, Bartlett said he expects the new board to allow it to continue. “I think that everyone would want due diligence done to determine what may or may not be right regarding that situation,” he said.

But Bartlett acknowledged the new board could provide its own direction and even quash the investigation. “Certainly the board controls,” he said.

Bartlett said he didn’t expect to be reappointed by the new board, but Leake said that would be “a great tragedy. ... He’s recognized nationally as a leading authority in the area of elections.”

McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said the timing of the appointments had nothing to do with the investigation. All five members’ terms expire April 30, and McCrory’s office wants new appointments to be made on time. The governor selects members from a list of five candidates submitted by each party. McCrory selected the top two Democrats, Genardo said.

Leake, who has been on the board for 20 years and chair for 16, said that he and current member Robert Cordle were on the list submitted by the state Democratic chair.

But Leake also dismissed the idea that the timing was motivated by the investigation.

“I don’t believe that to be the case, no,” he said. “I believe that we would all have been replaced regardless.”

Two of the governor’s GOP appointees said they didn’t know how the board would proceed with the sweepstakes inquiry.

“Right now, it’s too early to say,” said Josh Howard, 39, a current member of the Wake County Board of Elections.

The appointees

Howard, an attorney who handles federal and criminal law at a Raleigh firm, enters with extensive experience in the area of ethics and elections. He was a junior counsel in the Independent Counsel’s Office in Washington during the investigations of President Bill Clinton, including the inquiry into his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He also served at the Department of Justice and assisted in the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state Republican Party recommended Howard to fill a vacancy on the Board of Elections in 2011, but Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue refused to seat him and asked for more names.

Despite his GOP roots, Howard emphasized his bipartisan work on the Wake County board. “I would love to see that spirit on the state board,” he said.

Bipartisan spirit took a holiday last November, when the Wake board was deciding which provisional ballots to count in the close race for lieutenant governor. Howard disagreed with his Democratic counterparts several times in a tense meeting.

Another new GOP appointee is Paul Foley, a 35-year-old lawyer from Winston-Salem. He is the general counsel at the state Republican Party, an unpaid position elected by GOP activists at the party’s state convention. He served as an at-large alternative delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Foley said his party experience gives him a good handle on election and campaign finance law.

Dispelling concerns about his partisan ties, Foley said, “I think it would hard to be more partisan than the current board.”

The third GOP nominee is Rhonda Amoroso, the New Hanover County GOP party chair.

The three Republican appointees donated at least $16,000 to GOP candidates and causes in recent elections, according to state and federal campaign finance records. Howard gave McCrory $2,500 in the 2012 campaign and Foley donated $1,606 to host an event for the GOP candidate in October, records show. Amoroso gave McCrory’s campaign $135.

The Democratic board members or their families gave minimal amounts to their party candidates.

One of those Democrats, Maja Kricker, the current chair of the Chatham County Board of Elections, said

a review of the sweepstakes donations is “absolutely” the responsibility of the elections board.

The other Democratic appointee is Joshua Malcolm, the current chair of the Robeson County Board of Elections.

‘Nervous’ about turnover

Charles Winfree, a Republican who has served on the board for 12 years, said he would encourage the new members to pursue the investigation. “Based on what I’ve been told by the staff, it appears to me that there is enough to warrant an investigation,” he said. “Certainly the practice of the contributors needs to be examined.”

Hall said he was “nervous” about the 100 percent turnover on the elections board, but hoped the new members would approach the questions objectively.

“I think there were veterans, both Republicans and Democrats, on the Board of Elections that have been objective in reviewing complaints against both parties and I’ve admired their ability to get the facts even when they don’t agree with my personal opinions,” he said. “I hope the new group will also be very professional and fulfill the responsibilities to be above partisan biases and search for the truth.”

Hall asked the board to investigate three issues related to contributions from Chase Burns, the Oklahoma-based owner of International Internet Technologies, as well as other donations connected to the sweepstakes industry. Burns’ company supplies the software that Internet sweepstakes cafes use to run their games.

Checks for Burns’ contributions were written from a trust account that Florida investigators said received millions in illegal proceeds from Burns’ business customers. Hall wants to know whether Burns used a business account or an account that was part of an illegal business operation to make campaign contributions.

Campaign disclosure reports erroneously list Burns as an attorney with Moore & Van Allen, according to Hall’s complaint. Moore & Van Allen is a legal and lobbying firm that represented Burns’ company and also employed McCrory until days before he took office.

The five-member State Board of Elections, which for years has had three Democrats and two Republicans, has been aggressive in recent years in investigating campaign finance law violations. It investigated former House Speaker Jim Black, and former state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, among others. Both were Democrats who ended up sentenced to federal prison. But Republicans were critical of the board for limiting the inquiry into Perdue’s undisclosed campaign flights.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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