Politics & Government

Roy Cooper threatens veto over campaign finance secrets

Gov. Roy Cooper threatened Tuesday to veto a bill that allows for a complete do-over of the 9th Congressional District race, starting with a primary, if the state elections board calls for a new election.

The bill also reconfigures the agencies that oversee elections and ethics. But Cooper said he planned to veto the bill because of a provision that would require campaign finance investigations conducted by the state elections board to be confidential.

“Fix it this week and I’ll sign it,” Cooper said.

The legislature passed the bill with few dissenting votes, and Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. But Cooper wants them to remove the section of the bill that makes campaign finance investigations confidential, and puts a four-year statute of limitations on investigations. The bill also adds a new requirement before the elections board refers campaign finance cases to prosecutors. The Ethics Commission must do its own reviews and recommend to the elections board whether the cases should be referred.

Legislative staff and the elections board said last week that the bill would prevent the board from saying publicly that it was investigating suspected campaign finance violations, The News & Observer reported. The elections board lawyers unsure whether the bill would allow for the public hearings at the conclusion of investigations that detail findings before the board votes on referrals to prosecutors.

The elections board in 2015 held a hearing that presented the results of its investigation into campaign finance violations by former Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord, The N&O reported.

Hartsell ended up pleading guilty to state and federal charges and was sentenced to eight months in prison, The N&O reported.

This year, the board held a hearing on findings that Democratic Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte failed to disclose more than $141,000 in campaign contributions and expenditures, The N&O reported. The board referred that case to the Mecklenburg County district attorney.

“This bill makes it harder to root out corruption in elections and campaign finance,” Cooper said at a news conference.

“It actually provides more protections for politicians and others who violate campaign finance laws. These new provisions can shield wrong-doers by adding broad confidentiality requirements, limiting those who can file complaints, handcuffing investigators on how far back they can look, and requiring a reinvestigation by a second committee before evidence can be turned over to prosecutors. All of these new provisions operate to obscure the truth rather than shine a light on it.”

Senate leader Phil Berger said the bill gives Cooper everything he wanted in separate elections and ethics boards and urged Cooper to sign it.

Requiring confidentiality of campaign finance investigations is meant to discourage unfounded allegations, Berger told reporters.

“The only confidentiality is if a charge is made, if someone files a complaint, that’s the confidentiality,” Berger said. “If the board makes an investigation, if they find something, the information is perfectly legitimate and ought to be released.”

In a press release Monday, Senate Republicans chided Cooper for waiting to veto legislation and pushing override votes to Christmas week.

The veto threat delays a decision on whether the elections board is able to call for a new primary in the 9th Congressional District race.

The elections board is investigating the mishandling of absentee ballots and has twice declined to certify election results that show Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. A consultant who worked for Harris’ campaign is at the center of the investigation.

The bill passed the Republican-led legislature overwhelmingly, though the Democratic U.S. House delegation and a Republican former state Supreme Court justice question whether a law requiring a new primary is constitutional.

At the news conference, Cooper said it should be up to the elections board to decide whether a new primary is necessary.

“I think this is the decision the elections board should make,” Cooper said. “There should be an investigation in both the primary and the general election, and the elections board would make that decision.”

The bill would also return the state elections board to its pre-2017 configuration. Cooper and the Republican-dominated legislature have been fighting in court over the elections board since the legislature tried to reduce Cooper’s powers after his 2016 election. Cooper won the court fight.

The elections board would once again have five members, all appointed by the governor, with three from one party. The current board has nine members: four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated voter.

The Ethics Commission again would become its own entity, separate from the elections board. Responsibility for lobbyist registration would return to the Secretary of State.

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.