Barry Saunders

Saunders: My outrage about this prison story? How cheap it all is

Following the revelation in these pages that our dear governor brokered a meeting for a pal and donor last year to help him secure a government contract, we North Carolina residents must – like Tom Dooley in the legend and song – hang down our heads and cry.

Why? Because another politician has been besmudged by scandal and further eroded our confidence in government?

Heck no. Only a Naive Nellie doesn’t suspect that that sort of thing happens regularly, that the voices of people who contribute money to politicians ring louder than ours.

So, no. We hang our heads not because Charlotte businessman Graeme Keith Sr. appears to have bought the favor of Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials: We hang our heads because he bought them so cheaply.

Great day in the morning! The real estate magnate and his son and business partner, contributed $12,000 to McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign, yet McCrory – according to our story – trekked to Charlotte on Oct. 28, 2014, to help Keith make the case that he should keep his $3-million-per-year prison maintenance contracts. Never mind that state officials felt the state could handle the job more efficiently and with more safety, savings and accountability.

Keith’s little-bitty largess bought a place at the table with the governor and other state officials, a table at which – according to a memo of the meeting – Keith proclaimed that since politicians had danced to the music, they now had to pay the piper. That since he had greased their palms, it was time for them to grease his, too.

Only difference appears to be that he greased theirs with a thimbleful and they greased his with a big ol’ tub o’ lard.

McCrory acknowledged being at the meeting, at the table, even, but said he didn’t hear the big payback pronouncement because he must’ve been engaged in a side deal – I mean a side conversation.

Anything is possible, but it’s hard to believe that McCrory, seated at the same table, didn’t hear what the stentorian, 6’5” former jock said about the reciprocation he expected. According to the memo, “The meeting began with the Governor McCrory making a few remarks and turning the meeting over to Graeme Keith.”

Keith, the memo further stated, dove right into talking about the moolah he’d given politicians and how it was now time for them to render back unto him.

A representative of Keith’s office sent me a statement disputing the memo. “Any implication or inference that we have requested or been awarded contracts based on anything other than our qualifications, excellent performance and the value we provide is unfounded and offensive,” the statement read.

It also stated that the badmouthing of Keith was spurred by efforts to eliminate the privatization of prison contracts. “The campaign to eliminate privatization is driven by entrenched interests and not facts,” it stated.

If, as Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry feared and expressed, Keith’s strident demands for quid pro quo for his contributions could “soil” the governor, Keith was at least an equal opportunity soiler. Keith’s contributions to Democrats when that party was in power included $2,700 to House Speaker Jim Black, $5,900 to Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, $3,250 to Gov. Bev Perdue and $1,000 each to governors Jim Hunt and Mike Easley.

Who knew you could buy influence for that kind of lightweight lettuce?

I’ll tell you what: If we’d known that political influence could be bought so cheaply in North Carolina, my buddies and I would have churched up 10 years ago, bought us a pol and ensured that we kept the late, lamented 14 Karat Dinner Theater open.

If word gets out that our governor can be summoned for less than the bag boy at Piggly Wiggly makes annually – $12,000 comes out to about $6 an hour – McCrory will be a laughingstock at the next national governors’ ball.

In the Richard Pryor movie “Which Way Is Up?” a hobbling man on crutches approaches a faith healer, whom he has already paid. “Make me whole again,” the man pleads. “Let me be quick, and graceful, let me dance and run ...”

The faith healer clasps his hand over the man’s mouth. “You want an awful lot for $2,” he says, then gives him back his money.

You reckon Gov. McCrory wishes he’d said the same thing to his pal Keith – “You want a whole lot for $12,000” – and given him back his money?