Politics & Government

Campaign contributions reported from a judge and 80 farmers – were they legal?

NC state senator pushed for natural gas fund, then sought money from it

State Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, explains his legislation for a $5 million fund that provides natural gas service to farms across the state, and how his farm had applied for a $925,000 grant from that fund.
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State Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, explains his legislation for a $5 million fund that provides natural gas service to farms across the state, and how his farm had applied for a $925,000 grant from that fund.

A freelance campaign finance researcher on Friday asked North Carolina elections officials to audit the records of a high-ranking state senator to determine if there were violations.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Sampson County, responded that the researcher had uncovered bookkeeping errors that will be corrected, but he didn’t intend to skirt campaign finance laws.

Jackson is co-chairman of the Senate’s powerful budget committee, and one of two state legislators who are in the agricultural industry.

The complaint was brought by Bob Hall, who for many years worked on campaign finance and other issues with the advocacy group Democracy N.C.

Hall contends that Jackson’s records show he received improper contributions and that he reported contributors whose identities were obscured or had misleading identifying information. Some of the donors benefited from favorable treatment in the General Assembly, Hall says.

“By misidentifying donors with major interests in state contracts and the state budget, Sen. Jackson and his campaign deceive the public, falsely inflate his financial support from farmers, and violate campaign disclosure laws,” Hall’s complaint reads.

The complaint says more than 80 contributors list their occupations as “farmer,” when in fact their occupations have nothing to do with agriculture, including executives from a wide range of fields.

Jackson, in a phone interview Friday, said the complaint has prompted him to look for any corrections that need to be made in his campaign finance records.

“I take the campaign finance compliance stuff seriously, and I’ve never had a blemish that I’m aware of, and I don’t want to start now,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Judge’s money

Hall’s complaint shows that Judge Beecher Gray of Durham made more than 40 donations to state-level candidates during his 28 years as an administrative law judge. Superior court judges cannot make contributions to individual candidates, under the state’s judicial code of conduct, but administrative law judges are not prohibited, Hall says.

Gray was appointed to the superior court bench in January 2014. He continued to contribute to political campaigns after that, according to Hall. Records show Gray, his brother and his wife gave Jackson $25,550 between August 2014 and October 2018.

In addition, Hall says four of those donations were first reported in Gray’s name and only later reported under his wife’s name in amended disclosures. State law prohibits donors from making contributions in someone else’s name, including replacing a name with a spouse’s name.

Hall cites an WRAL-TV story from 2017 that reported Senate leaders included in the state budget a provision to allow service as an administrative law judge to count toward longevity pay for four judges, including Gray and Senate leader Phil Berger’s son, Phil Berger Jr. The change boosted Gray’s pay.

Judge Gray could not be reached by a phone message left in the superior court judge’s offices of the Durham County Courthouse.

Jackson said Friday that his campaign treasurer, who is also his farm’s controller, had become overwhelmed by the dual roles and made errors. Jackson’s campaign coffers have grown as he has risen through the ranks. During the first nine months of the year he reported taking in about $900,000 in contributions. That included close to $600,000 from individuals.

He said the treasurer had changed the contributor name from Gray to Gray’s wife because past records indicated she had signed the checks. He said he and his treasurer had inspected all of the contributions from the Grays on Friday and found she had signed all the checks.

Jackson disagreed that the large number of farmers listed on the reports was unusual, saying his campaign events sometimes draw hundreds of supporters. He said farming might not have been their primary occupation in all cases, but most of them have agricultural interest of some sort.

Jackson said he would be going over all the farmer contributions to confirm them. He said the complaint has made him more aware of campaign finance laws such as how specific an occupation must be listed.

“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” he said.

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.