Under the Dome

Former lawmaker who misspent campaign funds gets 8 months in prison

Former N.C. lawmaker Fletcher Hartsell was sentenced to eight months in prison on federal charges. He still faces state charges related to his campaign finance reports.
Former N.C. lawmaker Fletcher Hartsell was sentenced to eight months in prison on federal charges. He still faces state charges related to his campaign finance reports. N&O file photo

Former state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell was sentenced Tuesday to eight months in prison for federal charges related to his use of about $210,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses over eight years.

Hartsell was accused of spending campaign money on car expenses and repairs, lawn care, club memberships, haircuts, a trip to Charleston, S.C., with his wife’s hand bell 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.

Prosecutors contended that Hartsell concealed his actions by filing campaign finance reports that he knew were false. The sentencing hearing in the U.S. Middle District Court of North Carolina came three months after the 70-year-old Concord lawyer agreed to plead guilty to charges of mail fraud and filing false tax returns.

Hartsell, according to The Associated Press, apologized to his family and supporters who crowded into the Winston-Salem courtroom for the hour-long hearing, in which prosecutors and the defense team argued about the length of his prison sentence.

According to court documents, Hartsell is to report to the federal Bureau of Prisons on July 17.

The hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder resolves part of a long-running state and federal investigation into how the Republican who represented portions of Cabarrus and Union counties used campaign money for expenses such as life insurance policies, phone service for relatives, membership to the Carolina Club at UNC-Chapel Hill and to a Studebaker driving club.

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

In February, John Strong, a special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina, said in a statement that Hartsell spent campaign money “as if it were from his own personal piggy bank.”

Hartsell served in the General Assembly for 25 years as a member of the state Senate and state House of Representatives. He did not seek re-election last year.

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 correctwhile 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 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. Prosecutors agreed to drop the other charges as part of the plea agreement reached in February.

The state case was on hold while the federal case remained unresolved.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said several months ago that she hoped to resolve the state case without going to trial.

The state case came after the state elections board voted 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.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1