The State Board of Elections spent two years probing the muck of North Carolina’s pay-to-play political system and found no violations of the law.
That immaculate immersion was declared on Wednesday when the board announced it found no cause for action after its lengthy probe of campaign contributions made by a leading figure in the video sweepstakes industry, Chase E. Burns of Oklahoma. Burns and his company gave $274,500 in donations to North Carolina candidates during the 2012 campaign. The video sweepstakes industry at the time was pushing for legislation to legalize Internet sweepstakes cafes after courts delivered conflicting verdicts about whether the operations constituted illegal gambling.
Much of the money was delivered by lobbyists to candidates or their campaign representatives. The recipients included Democrats and Republicans, including then-House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger. Pat McCrory, who was making his second run for governor, also received funds. Burns was later indicted in Florida on racketeering and money laundering charges and pleaded no contest to lesser charges.
This combination of big contributions and high office would appear ripe for investigation. That the probe found no violations raises doubts about the aggressiveness of the review conducted under a board controlled by Republicans. But that skepticism may be unfair. What the investigation found wasn’t that political fund raising is pure. It found that the method Burns used to disburse the contributions – running them through a trust fund – successfully evaded a prohibition against businesses making direct contributions to campaigns.
In the end, investigators and board members were more frustrated by the limits of the law than satisfied that the law had not been broken. U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker should give this report close attention to see whether more could be found given the extra investigatory powers of his office.
Bob Hall, director of the voter advocacy group Democracy NC, filed the complaint in April 2013 that launched the investigation. He said he appreciated the investigators’ efforts, but he thinks prosecutors may be able to find more. Hall said the board’s 100-page report details who received the money and the way it was distributed as part of “a sophisticated effort to turn a criminal enterprise into a legitimate business activity in North Carolina.”
The investigation, Hall said, “provided a window into the kind of corrupt pay-to-play system we have now in North Carolina.”