Three major Tillis campaign donors get seats on UNC Board of Governors

jneff@newsobserver.com jfrank@newsobserver.comJuly 17, 2013 

A super PAC for House Speaker Thom Tillis recently raised $105,000 from five donors for his U.S. Senate race, including $70,000 from three men the House appointed to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

The contributions raise more questions about whether donations to the Republican candidate’s bid are connected to legislation in the chamber he controls. They also highlight Tillis’ ability to raise money when other lawmakers are limited in soliciting campaign contributions.

Donors can make unlimited donations to Grow NC Strong, the independent super PAC Tillis supporters formed to boost his 2014 bid to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. Individual donors can only give $4,000 to Tillis’ state legislative campaign and $2,600 to his federal account.

W.G. Champion Mitchell said his $25,000 contribution had nothing to do with his recent appointment to the university’s governing board.

“I want to see him be our next senator,” Mitchell said. “That is the answer.”

Mitchell, who sits on the super PAC board, said the group just started raising money in the last two weeks of June and has taken only fundraising baby steps.

“There’s going to be a lot more money and a lot more people,” Mitchell said. “We would have been wise to wait to the first of July to start.”

R. Doyle Parrish, a Raleigh hotel and restaurant owner, was the only registered Democrat whom the House appointed to the UNC board. Parrish, who is also on the super PAC board, gave $20,000, according to federal campaign finance reports made public this week.

The House elected Mitchell, Parrish and six others March 20. The next day, House Republicans announced there had been a vote tallying error and removed James Nance of Albemarle, replacing him with George A. Sywassink of Hilton Head, S.C.

Sywassink owns Standard Holding Co., which owns a Charlotte-based commercial freight company. The company contributed $25,000 to Tillis’ super PAC. State campaigns cannot accept corporate contributions, while super PACs can.

Sywassink said he has been a long-time supporter of Tillis. His appointment had nothing to do with his contribution, he said.

“I happen to think Thom Tillis would do a very good job as a senator,” Sywassink said. “That’s all I have to say.”

Cindy Marrelli-Watko of Raleigh, who gave $10,000, has supported Tillis for the past five years and is on the super PAC board. A former IBM consultant, like Tillis, she said she is open to an appointment but really aims to see more women involved in politics.

“I want to see more talented women on boards and commissions, and get more women in political offices,” she said. “I’m surprised there aren’t more women involved.”

Parrish did not return phone calls for comment, nor did Jane Cameron Sullivan of Wilmington, who gave $25,000.

She is a member of the Cameron family, whose Wilmington-area real estate and business activities include the development of Figure Eight Island.

‘Were these positions sold?’

The contributions from the House appointees to the Tillis super PAC concern Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic operative turned watchdog who criticized prominent Democrats like Jim Black, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.

“The super PACs and their unlimited contributions accelerates the whole pay-to-play issue,” Sinsheimer said. “It raises the question, ‘Were these positions sold?’ ”

At a minimum, he said, there is an appearance of a conflict of interest that puts the donor and campaign in a difficult and awkward position.

“We don’t know what conversations took place behind closed doors and what promises were made,” Sinsheimer said.

As an independent expenditure committee, Grow NC Strong is not allowed to coordinate messaging or strategy with the Tillis campaign, but it can raise and spend unlimited funds to support his run. The two committees share Jonathan Brooks as a fundraiser.

Strict federal guidelines and regulations prohibit Tillis from soliciting money for the super PAC, campaign spokesman Paul Shumaker said.

“We’ve got a firewall,” Shumaker said. “Any talk of a conflict is more a creation in the minds of the media than a perception in the minds of the public.”

Tillis could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

As the N.C. House debated a sweeping tax bill and a controversial gun resolution, Tillis spent the day raising money in Washington, including an 11 a.m. fundraiser hosted by two lobbyists at the offices of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. The meet-and-greet invite included information about donations up to the maximum of $2,600.

Later in the day, Tillis was scheduled to attend an event hosted by America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry lobbying group.

Why this case is different

The UNC appointments and campaign contributions call to mind days when Republicans routinely attacked Democrats for “pay-to-play politics.”

In September 2010, then-N.C. Republican Party spokesman Jordan Shaw issued a press release blasting the cronyism of two Perdue appointments: Sen. David Hoyle to Secretary of Revenue, and Sen. Tony Rand to the N.C. Parole Commission.

The release quoted then-Republican party Chairman Tom Fetzer: “Perdue’s pay to play philosophy is paying off for Hoyle and Rand, but our citizens have seen enough.”

Now a spokesman for Tillis, Shaw said the House appointments are not related to the campaign contributions.

“Anybody can donate to that super PAC without our involvement,” he said.

He also disputed any comparison to his previous words about Perdue’s appointments and her campaign finance problems. “I don’t think it’s a fair comparison to what are legal contributions to a super PAC,” he said.

Bob Hall, a campaign finance watchdog, said Tillis is establishing a pattern of questionable links between legislative action and his fundraising.

Earlier this year, Hall noted, a prominent consumer loan business owner helped host a fundraiser for Tillis’ U.S. Senate campaign that came days after lawmakers approved a bill to help the industry.

He called the unlimited donations from the Board of Governors members “very disturbing.”

“It does very much look like a continuation of pay-to-play, and not a change as promised by Republicans,” he said.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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