Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has taken a bold step toward ensuring that possible corruption in state government will be fully investigated.
Freeman, responding to a request from the elections watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to take a second look at whether laws were violated when the video sweepstakes industry showered state lawmakers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions during the 2012 election cycle.
At the time, the video sweepstakes industry – a network of video games that were thinly veiled gambling machines – was seeking to overturn a state law that banned video poker and other electronic gambling. Among those who received the industry’s generous contributions were then-House Speaker and now U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and then-candidate and now Gov. Pat McCrory.
The case raises clear concerns about pay-to-play politics, but there are significant other issues. One involved contributions from Chase E. Burns of Oklahoma, owner of a company that developed software for the sweepstakes machines. Burns paid $274,000 in campaign donations to North Carolina candidates and party committees from a trust fund filled with $5 million transferred from his company, International Internet Technologies. Burns’ contributions may have violated laws against direct corporate contributions to candidates, and the money itself was tainted by illegal gambling. Burns was indicted in Florida on racketeering charges and pleaded no contest to a lesser charge.
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The case is in further in need of a second review following a limited investigation conducted by the State Board of Elections that did not include interviews with some key figures. Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, initiated the board’s investigation by filing a complaint about the sweepstakes donations in April 2013. After more than two years of virtual silence about the probe, the board found no wrongdoing worth referring to prosecutors.
The sweepstakes case offers a window into how money and politics mix in Raleigh. The State Board of Elections, despite the duration of its review, didn’t see anything there. Now it’s time for a more independent investigation using the broader powers of the SBI.
Wake District Attorney Freeman has served the public and democracy well by taking a deeper look.