The state Board of Elections voted unanimously Wednesday that there is “reason to believe” Sen. Fletcher Hartsell improperly used campaign donations to pay personal expenses, forwarding the results of a lengthy probe to state and federal prosecutors.
The elections board’s staff found that Hartsell, a long-serving Republican from Cabarrus County, used campaign funds to pay speeding tickets, dinners with his family, haircuts, shoe repairs, part of his driver license renewal fee and more, officials said.
From 2009 to 2012, Hartsell used his campaign account to pay more than $109,000 in credit card debts that were not associated with campaign expenses, said Kim Westbrook Strach, the board’s executive director.
Strach presented the five-member, bipartisan board with a summary of an internal report that is more than 700 pages. The report was not made public and is considered an investigative document.
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The elections office released a 68-page document related to Strach’s public presentation.
Campaign laws have been written to foster transparency, requiring candidates properly report and disclose their expenditures and contributions. But Hartsell’s reports did not do that, officials said Wednesday.
Some elections board members said they believed Hartsell had filed vague campaign finance reports with an intention to hide what he was doing.
“I think we see a pattern here of opaque and circuitous disclosures,” said board chairman Josh Howard, a Republican. “It bothers me that those go on when the official seems to have generated significant personal debt and is also spending campaign money on what appears to be purely personal purposes.”
Hartsell did not appear before the board on Wednesday. He was sitting in the Senate’s chamber as it debated the state budget.
His attorney, Roger Knight of Raleigh, appeared before the board and said his client may have made mistakes, but they were unintentional. Hartsell tried to correct those mistakes in meetings with elections staff.
“We went through literally thousands of entries,” Knight said. “Of those, we removed many.”
Reached for comment, Hartsell said he was disappointed in the board’s decision and declined to comment in detail.
Hartsell, now the Senate’s longest serving member, had not had his campaign reports audited by state elections officials before a report in The News & Observer showed Hartsell used campaign funds in 2011 and 2012 to pay nearly $100,000 in debts on personal credit cards.
That newspaper article sparked a deep review of Hartsell’s campaign spending.
Family also constituents
Hartsell spoke with investigators for 18 hours over the past two years as they combed through 24 years of his campaign finance reports.
Strach offered board members multiple responses from Hartsell to a range of questions about his campaign spending.
Strach told board members that 536 of 1,671 expenses in the 2009 to 2012 period “appear impermissible” after “giving the greatest latitude” to explanations from Hartsell.
Most at issue is a state law that prohibits candidates from using campaign money for their personal expenses. It wasn’t always that way. Before October 2006, candidates could use their campaign funds on virtually anything – and they did, buying cars, laptops and trips as well as other monthly expenses. The hearing showed that Hartsell was one who did.
The state legislature adopted more restrictive laws as part of campaign and lobbying reforms adopted after high profile criminal cases involving lawmakers.
Using campaign accounts for personal items now is allowed only if the expense is connected to the lawmaker’s legislative duties.
Strach told board members that Hartsell’s campaign had more expenditures the day before the law changed than on any other day reviewed.
In justifying using campaign funds for personal expenses, Strach said Hartsell told elections staff that he used campaign money to pay for dinners with his wife and daughter, and at least one meal with a granddaughter, because he said his family members are also his constituents.
Hartsell apparently told elections staff that if he were not a legislator, he might grow his hair long. “If not for being in the Senate, he would grow it out and be a hippie,” Howard said, summarizing a Hartsell exchange with elections staff.
Hartsell told elections staff his campaign picked up part of his driver license renewal fee because he might not drive anymore if he were not holding elective office.
Hartsell owns five cars, including two vintage cars his lawyer says are in storage.
The elections investigation also found Hartsell used campaign funds to pay utility bills and other expenses for property he owned.
Hartsell told officials that was because he rented the property to nonprofit organizations and he considered the campaign expenses to be charitable donations.
Campaigns are allowed to make charitable contributions when they’re made directly to the charity, and many candidates do that.
Hartsell had expenses of more than $13,000 for utilities and insurance from 2009 to 2012 that were associated with his properties, which he said had nonprofits as tenants.
In a statement from Hartsell that Strach provided in her report, Hartsell said the property’s upkeep was connected to his standing as a legislator.
“In my view, it is beneficial for my campaign and for my public service for the property to be well-kept and for the property to continue to offer services to the community,” the statement said. “At the same time, it would hurt my campaigns and my credibility as a public servant if the property fell vacant and into disrepair.”
Hartsell, a lawyer in private practice, also wrote checks to his law firm in apparent reimbursement for charitable contributions.
A call to resign
The elections board, which has three Republican and two Democratic members, voted to refer the case to prosecutors in Wake and Cabarrus counties, and the state’s three federal districts. That process could lead to no prosecution of Hartsell – or possible criminal charges.
The elections board also voted to consider levying civil penalties in the coming months.
The decision is a blow for the veteran legislator who has held sway in the Senate and has deep roots in his hometown.
He was once the county attorney for Cabarrus County and the local school board. Backers of a controversial online charter school that will begin accepting students in the upcoming school year recently hired Hartsell as their lawyer in a fight that resulted in state approval.
Hartsell, who has served in the Senate since 1991, helps lead one of the Senate’s judiciary committees and its Program Evaluation Committee. He is a vice chairman of the Senate’s Finance Committee.
A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said late Wednesday that it would be premature to comment before Hartsell had a chance to respond.
The state Democratic Party called on Republican leaders to seek Hartsell’s resignation if he does not step down.
“The State Board of Elections presented an overwhelming amount of evidence today suggesting that Sen. Fletcher Hartsell broke not only the public trust, but North Carolina law,” party executive director Kimberly Reynolds said in a statement. “In the face of these allegations, Senator Hartsell should step down immediately. If not, Gov. (Pat) McCrory and Senate leadership should call for his resignation. Public office should never be used for private gain. Period.”
Colin Campbell contributed.
A glance at some of the more than $100,000 in questionable spending highlighted in Wednesday’s elections hearing about state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell’s campaign account:
▪ More than $40,000 in repairs, gasoline and other vehicle expenses. Hartsell has five vehicles, two of them are vintage.
▪ More than $3,700 in office supplies, including multiple National Geographic videos.
▪ At least 19 payments, totaling $633, to H&H Shoe Repair to repair two pairs of shoes.
▪ Nearly $400 in meals with his wife and family, who Hartsell said he considered to also be his constituents.
▪ Nearly 50 payments to America Online.
▪ Court costs associated with three speeding tickets.
▪ Haircuts, though officials did not specify an amount spent.
Source: State Board of Elections