The N.C. Republican Party on Wednesday accused Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of violating campaign finance laws.
At issue is a conference that Cooper attended in June, hosted by the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, a lobbying group for trial lawyers. In addition to panel discussions on eminent domain, employment law and other legal issues, the conference also featured a “Roy Cooper fundraiser” session on June 18, according to documents provided by the GOP.
Robin Hayes, the state GOP chairman, said that fundraiser was unlawful. It violated campaign finance law, he said, because the General Assembly hadn’t yet finished its business in Raleigh. State politicians are prohibited from soliciting campaign donations from lobbyists and certain groups while the legislature is in session.
“You cannot do it,” Hayes said Wednesday at a press conference. “You can’t raise money while the legislature is in session.”
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Lawmakers didn’t end their session until several days after the fundraiser, which was held at the Sea Trail Resort in Sunset Beach.
Republicans want the staff of the N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to investigate. The board that runs the agency is vacant because of a court dispute between Cooper and the General Assembly.
Dallas Woodhouse, the N.C. GOP’s executive director, said he thinks this should’ve been a clear violation to all involved – and that both the donors and Cooper might face legal trouble in the future over the donations.
“You would think a bunch of trial lawyers would know better,” Woodhouse said.
But Cooper’s campaign strategist, Morgan Jackson, dismissed the accusation that anything improper happened at the fundraiser.
“The event was hosted by individuals and all fundraising expenses were paid for by the Cooper Campaign,” Jackson said. “This a baseless complaint that just happens to come out on a day that public polling numbers were released showing that Governor Cooper has strong statewide approval ratings.”
The N.C. Democratic Party also called the allegation “baseless.”
“This is a complete waste of time and a sad attempt to distract from the N.C. GOP’s flailing agenda, sinking poll numbers, and Governor Cooper’s popularity,” Democratic Party Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds said in a written statement.
However, Woodhouse and Hayes said the fundraiser – which netted Cooper’s reelection campaign $50,000, according to the complaint – is concerning because the N.C. Advocates for Justice was strongly opposed to a bill that Cooper vetoed, about a month before the fundraiser, that gave additional legal protections to hog farms that have allegedly polluted their neighbors’ properties in Eastern North Carolina.
Woodhouse said NCAJ “was aggressively involved in” lobbying against the bill, which is now law since Republican lawmakers were able to override Cooper’s veto.
Hayes called the fundraiser another episode in “a lengthy history” of North Carolina Democrats violating campaign finance laws. Former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, was convicted of a felony after a News & Observer series exposed violations.
The state Democratic Party, though, had accusations of its own on Wednesday.
“Dallas Woodhouse and the N.C. GOP are the ones who have actually committed election violations, and their hypocrisy to toss around serious – and false – claims like this while they committed actual election law violations last fall is stunning,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds was referring to an ongoing legal battle stemming from last October, when the N.C. Democratic Party accused then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign of unlawfully receiving money from a national political group, the Republican Governor’s Association.
As for Woodhouse, he has been accused of possibly violating campaign finance laws through a “dark money” nonprofit that supported U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ 2014 campaign, although he was never investigated. The Federal Elections Commission decided last year not to investigate after its six members couldn’t decide what to do. Its three Democratic members wanted to investigate, but the three Republican members didn’t, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Woodhouse and Hayes said Wednesday that Cooper appears to be playing politics with the board that could possibly investigate this new complaint. The board is in legal limbo because of a lawsuit by Cooper against legislative leaders.
After Cooper won the election, the General Assembly combined the state boards of elections and ethics into a single group, and also changed the law so that Democrats would have less control over elections issues.
Cooper sued over the changes, and that lawsuit is currently awaiting a decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Hayes called on Cooper to drop his lawsuit and allow the new board to begin its work.
It’s one of several lawsuits Cooper has filed challenging the legislature. He expanded one lawsuit Tuesday, calling parts of the new state budget unconstitutional.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran