In April of 2013 Gov. Pat McCrory replaced all five members of the State Board of Elections, including its two Republicans, just as the board was launching a probe into political contributions made to McCrory and other top Republicans’ officeholders’ campaigns.
The investigation involved 60 campaign contributions totaling more than $230,000 from Chase E. Burns of Oklahoma, the owner of a sweepstakes software company. The sweepstakes industry has sought legislation protecting it in North Carolina from charges that video poker and other Internet games are illegal gambling.
McCrory’s spokeswoman at the time said the membership change was routine since the board members’ terms were expiring at the end of the month. It was uncomfortable timing on the governor’s part, but still his prerogative to bring in a new board as he began his term. The governor selected the new members from lists provided by the Democratic and Republican parties.
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Now the governor’s changeover has backfired in one instance. One of the three Republicans he selected has come under scrutiny for improperly seeking information from the board’s staff about how the sweepstakes investigation was going. The board member, Winston-Salem lawyer Paul J. Foley, repeatedly asked for updates without disclosing that he had a conflict of interest in the case.
In the course of the investigation, board investigators discovered that Foley’s firm had received $1.27 million from Burns or a related company over a four-year period. When staff alerted board chairman Josh Howard about the payments to Foley’s firm, Foley recused himself from anything involving Burns that would come before the board. Howard then asked the office of the state attorney general to review Foley’s actions to see whether he had improperly influenced the investigation.
Alexander McC. Peters, a senior deputy attorney general, reviewed the matter and concluded that Foley had not affected the investigation. He said there was no action to be taken by his office, but Foley’s actions could be addressed by the state Ethics Commission or the N.C. State Bar.
The clearance by the attorney general’s office hardly clears Foley to continue serving. Foley, a general counsel to the Republican Party, was too partisan a choice from the start. Now it appears he was silent about his ties to a figure at the center of a major investigation and sought information about the probe before the entire board was informed.
The board had perception problems with the sweepstakes investigation even before Foley’s actions came to light. There is no excuse for why it has taken more than two years. If the issues were so complicated, the board should have made a preliminary finding and turned it over to an agency better equipped to do a full and prompt investigation.
Now, at last, the board is wrapping up the probe. It is expected to announce its findings at a news conference on Wednesday. How the board acts on those findings has been complicated by Foley’s conduct.
The public relies on the State Board of Elections to oversee honest elections and fair enforcement of election laws. Foley can no longer fulfill those roles credibly. He should step down or the governor should ask for his resignation.