Under the Dome

Fletcher Hartsell, a former NC senator, pleads guilty in misuse of campaign funds

Former state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell pleaded guilty on Friday to federal charges that he used about $210,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses over eight years.

His agreement to plead guilty to charges of mail fraud and filing false tax returns was entered in North Carolina’s federal middle-district court. It resolves part of a long-running state and federal investigation into how the 69-year-old Concord lawyer used campaign money for expenses such as life insurance policies, phone service for relatives and membership to the Carolina Club at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Studebaker driving club.

The criminal charges followed an extensive review by the state Board of Elections of Hartsell’s campaign expenditures and reports. A News & Observer investigation triggered the state’s review.

“Senator Fletcher Hartsell degraded our country’s democratic process by spending campaign money as if it were from his own personal piggy bank,” John Strong, special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina, said in a statement announcing the plea. “Hartsell paid for basic expenses including haircuts and lawn care with money that belonged to the American people. The FBI will work tirelessly to ensure any elected official who abuses their power is held accountable for their wrongdoing.”

Hartsell, a Republican, represented portions of Cabarrus and Union counties as a member of the state Senate and state House of Representatives for 25 years. He did not seek re-election last year.

“Sen. Fletcher Hartsell made a lasting mark on North Carolina and earned the respect of his peers from both parties during more than 25 years of public service, and I am saddened by today’s news,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement.

The federal charges filed last year came nearly three months after a Wake County grand jury indicted Hartsell in state court on allegations that he certified three campaign-finance documents as correct, while knowing they were not.

At the time of his arrest on the state charges in June, Hartsell was the longest-serving state senator.

In federal court, Hartsell had originally faced five counts of mail fraud, three counts of wire fraud and six counts of money laundering. He pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and two counts of filing false tax returns.

An indictment alleged he spent campaign money on car expenses and repairs, lawn care, club memberships, haircuts, a trip to Charleston, S.C., with his wife’s handbell choir, tickets to the musical “Jersey Boys,” a vacation with his wife in Edenton, his granddaughter’s birthday party and getting his driver’s license renewed. The indictment said Hartsell concealed his actions by filing campaign finance reports that he knew were false.

Richard Glaser, the Charlotte-based attorney representing Hartsell in federal court, said Friday that he and Hartsell would not speak outside a courtroom on the charges.

Sentencing is set for May 16 in the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem in front of U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.

Federal prosecutors said Hartsell faces a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine.

It was unclear from the plea arrangement whether Hartsell would be sentenced to any time in prison.

“Transparency, honesty, and integrity on the part of elected officials allow citizens to make informed decisions about their campaign contributions and at the ballot box,” Sandra Hairston, the acting U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s middle district, said in prosecutors’ announcement. “This case should serve as a reminder that those occupying positions of public trust will be held accountable under the same criminal laws as their constituents.”

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the state case had been on hold while the federal case remained unresolved. On Friday, Freeman said she planned to move ahead with the state charges and hoped to resolve the case without going to trial.

State elections board review

The state elections board voted nearly two years ago to forward results of its lengthy examination of Hartsell’s campaign-finance expenditures to state and federal prosecutors on the belief that he had used campaign money to pay personal expenses.

The N&O had reported that Hartsell’s campaign-finance reports for 2011 and 2012 showed he paid off nearly $100,000 in personal credit card bills using campaign funds. He also paid thousands of dollars more in reimbursements to himself and his law firm from campaign accounts, the N&O reported.

The state investigation found that Hartsell spent more than $109,000 from his campaign account to pay personal expenses from 2009 to 2012. In a statement in 2015 on the board’s action, Hartsell said he believed he fully complied with the law.

Before October 2006, candidates could use their campaign funds on virtually anything. They bought cars, laptops and tickets to sporting events, and they paid for trips and monthly expenses.

The state legislature adopted more restrictive laws as part of campaign and lobbying reforms after high-profile criminal cases involving lawmakers. Candidates are now prohibited from using campaign money for personal items unless the expense is connected to the lawmaker’s legislative duties.

The elections board’s investigation found Hartsell’s campaign had more expenditures the day before the law changed than on any other day reviewed.

“Our agency remains committed to the important work of investigations and campaign finance compliance for more than 5,000 campaigns, PACs and political organizations,” Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the state elections board, said in a statement released Friday.

Independent streak

Hartsell was a powerful legislator with expertise in complex finance and tax law. He was also known for being unpredictably independent when it came to the GOP agenda.

In 2009, when Democrats were still in power, Hartsell was ranked by a public policy group at No. 7 in effectiveness, the highest-placing Republican in the General Assembly.

But political scandal knows no party boundaries.

Lawmakers who went to prison have included House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat, who pleaded guilty to taking $29,000 in cash from chiropractors who were pushing legislation. He was convicted in 2007 and imprisoned for three years in federal prison.

Political fallout from the Black scandal may have helped the GOP run as reformers.

In 2015, high-ranking state Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Republican from Kinston, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for stealing public money from a nonprofit organization he ran to help small rural businesses.

Former state Rep. Thomas Wright, a Democrat from Wilmington, served more than six years behind bars for mishandling charity contributions and fraudulently obtaining a $150,000 loan.

After Hartsell was indicted by a Wake County grand jury in June on state charges, he made an emotional speech from the floor of the Senate.

“Today has been a pretty tough day for me, as many of you probably know,” he said.

He didn’t address the charges that had been filed against him, but thanked his wife of 43 years, as she watched from the gallery.

His remarks prompted several lawmakers to praise him, and he was given a loud applause. One of those who praised his character was Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham.

On Friday, McKissick said he had worked closely with Hartsell for a decade.

“Certainly in his work in the Senate he had an outstanding reputation as somebody who had a sharp legal mind, somebody who had integrity when you worked with him, somebody you could trust,” McKissick said.

The Durham lawmaker said he never discussed the charges in detail with Hartsell but knows that it was overwhelming for him, and he hopes the plea bargain is the best resolution for Hartsell legally and emotionally.

“Sometimes it’s a roll of the dice, even if you know you haven’t engaged in improper conduct or believe the conduct is defensible,” McKissick said. “What you’re facing is daunting, and you cut your losses.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1