NC elections board silent on sweepstakes probe

January 4, 2014 

As head of the N.C. Republican Party, former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer hectored the State Board of Elections to investigate possible election law violations by Democratic officer holders. In August 2010, frustrated by the board’s lack of response, he asked then-Gov. Bev Perdue for the resignations of State Board of Elections chair Larry Leake and executive director Gary Bartlett.

“It is apparent to me, and to many others, that the board of elections has become a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. That cesspool needs to be drained and cleaned,” Fetzer declared at a news conference.

It was an odd outrage. The elections board, though appointed by Democratic governors, had been busy investigating Democrats. Its most recent investigations had included probes into election law violations by former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, former state Reps. Thomas Wright and Michael Decker and former Govs. Mike Easley and Perdue. All but Decker are Democrats.

Yet Fetzer’s storm of indignation worked to advance the Republicans’ claim that long-entrenched Democrats had become corrupt and needed to be driven from power in Raleigh. That’s what happened a few months after Fetzer’s “cesspool” claim. Republicans swept into control of the General Assembly and then picked up the governor’s office two years later.

But the new party in charge has hardly brought a new pattern when it comes to election contributions. Indeed, Republicans play the “pay-to-play” game with more gusto than their jaded Democratic predecessors.

There’s a foundation, Renew North Carolina, that collects money to support Gov. Pat McCrory’s agenda but without the restrictions on maximum amounts or the need to disclose donors. House Speaker Thom Tillis broke away from presiding over the last session to collect donations for his U.S. Senate race from people who might have business before the General Assembly. Last month, Senate leader Phil Berger headlined a $500-per-head fundraiser in Raleigh hosted by several lobbyists. The lobbyists are raising money to support Berger’s son who is running for the 6th District U.S. House seat.

These fundraising efforts are subtle compared with the cash taken in by North Carolina state politicians – mostly Republican, but some Democratic – from Chase E. Burns, a sweepstakes game provider from Anadarko, Okla. Burns gave more than $230,000 to dozens of politicians including McCrory, Berger and Tillis in an apparent effort to boost legislation that would allow sweepstakes games across North Carolina. Many of the contributions were handled by the Charlotte offices of Moore & Van Allen, the law and lobbying firm where McCrory worked before becoming governor.

The Associated Press reported that Burns recently pleaded no contest in Florida to two criminal counts of assisting in the operation of a lottery. The deal led to the dropping of 205 felony counts, including racketeering and money laundering charges. The AP said Burns’ contributions in North Carolina appear to have come from a checking account that held money seized by Oklahoma authorities as “laundered proceeds” from a criminal gambling enterprise.

Bob Hall of the voter advocacy group Democracy NC filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections in April asking for a review of whether Burns’ contributions – and the possible bundling of the contributions – violated election laws. Shortly thereafter, Gov. McCrory used his authority to replace all five members of the board of elections. Bartlett, the director, was replaced by Kim Strach, a veteran campaign investigator for the board who is married to Phil Strach, a Raleigh attorney who is former legal counsel to the state Republican Party.

Now, more than eight months after the complaint, the state board has taken no action or issued any report on where the investigation stands. Sheryll Harris, a compliance specialist who is conducting the review, said, “We’re still working on that.”

There may be legitimate reasons for the slow going in this case, but in the interest of transparency, Strach or the board ought to say what those reasons are and where the investigation stands.

They don’t need to worry, however, about any demands for action from Fetzer. He’s now a lobbyist – and was one of the hosts of the fundraiser for the Senate president’s son.

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