Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Moore updates reports after audit

Speaker of the House Tim Moore, center, has downplayed a recent audit of his campaign finances.
Speaker of the House Tim Moore, center, has downplayed a recent audit of his campaign finances. cseward@newsobserver.com

House Speaker Tim Moore is facing scrutiny after a State Board of Elections audit found problems in his campaign finance reports.

Auditors found Moore’s campaign reported spending thousands of dollars in credit card expenses – but failed to follow state law that requires itemized details of what those expenses were. Moore had supported a 2006 campaign finance bill that established the requirement.

The routine state audit covered Moore’s reports from 2011 to 2014, before he became speaker. Auditors also found contributions from six Political Action Committees with dates showing they’d been received while the legislature was in session – which would have made them illegal contributions.

In response to the audit, Moore’s treasurer provided documents indicating that the dates were incorrect and the checks had been received before the session began. Legislators can legally accept PAC donations when the General Assembly isn’t in session.

Much of the attention surrounding the audit last week has focused on Moore’s failure to detail credit card charges, which was first reported by Charlotte TV station WBTV.

Moore downplayed the audit’s criticism in an interview.

“I just had an audit from the State Board of Elections that said everything we’ve done has been fine,” Moore said in the interview.

The audit said otherwise. “Rep. Moore has been using a personal credit card to pay campaign expenditures for several years,” auditor Joe Patton wrote in his report. “The treasurer did not report these expenditures as in-kind contributions or show the detail through debts owed.”

On Oct. 9, in response to the auditor’s request, Moore’s campaign submitted itemized records of credit card spending dating back to 2010, including about $20,000 between July 2014 and June 2015. He spent $7,534 on restaurant meals “related to holding public office or campaigning” and $1,338 on gasoline.

Some of the meal charges were for inexpensive fast food stops, but others were more costly steakhouse dinners, including $1,429.84 at Vinnie’s Steak House in North Raleigh on Feb. 23.

While legislators receive mileage reimbursements to Raleigh and a “per diem” to cover lodging and meals while in session, they can also use campaign funds for those expenses – as long as it’s money they wouldn’t have spent if they didn’t hold public office.

Legislative leaders like Moore are more likely to use campaign funds for travel than back-benchers or Democrats. That’s because they receive major contributions even in years when they’re not up for reelection. Legislators with less influence typically don’t have as much money to spend.

Moore was among several top Republicans audited recently as the Board of Elections works through a backlog. Campaign reports are supposed to be audited within four months of each election, but that rarely happens because the state has six auditors and receives up to 10,000 reports per year.

“Our staff can get through about 6,000 reports a year, so it’s an automatic deficit,” said Josh Lawson, a spokesman for the Board of Elections.

In September, the board fined Sen. Brent Jackson’s campaign $2,000 for accepting $6,000 from the Smithfield Foods PAC in 2010 and 2011. The PAC’s contribution to the Senate budget writer exceeded the $4,000 election cycle limit.

Audit findings were released this month for Sen. Louis Pate, the deputy president pro tem, and Rep. Charles Jeter, the Republican conference chairman.

Pate’s reports had some incorrect bank balances and missing data on loans, which were attributed to “a number of computer crashes” at his campaign. Pate corrected the reports.

Jeter’s audit included three pages of findings, most of them errors and omissions in reporting contributions and expenses. For example, some reports were missing occupations and addresses for campaign donors.

He also made a $303 charitable contribution from his campaign fund using cash, which isn’t allowed for payments larger than $50. That triggered a $303 fine.

In an interview Thursday, Jeter downplayed the audit findings. “All of ours were what I’d call very simple corrections,” he said. “There was nothing of substance or ill intent.”

Jeter said his leadership position has meant he’s receiving more campaign money and filing more complicated reports, and he’s hired a new treasurer “to clean up the sloppiness.”

The Jeter audit reviewed two years of reports at once, and he said the Board of Elections’ backlog shows a need for more funding. But he said auditors ought to prioritize their investigations – they spent two months working on his campaign reports for only minor problems.

“The goal should be to find the bad actors and to make sure we fix the bad actors,” he said. “I do think they’re understaffed, and we do need to give them more auditors.”

Some campaigns go years without being audited, Lawson said. The most notable example is Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, who’d been in office since 1991 but wasn’t audited until a News & Observer report about questionable campaign spending. He’s now under investigation for using campaign funds to pay for speeding tickets, hair cuts, shoe repairs, life insurance and meals with his family.

News reports about the Moore audit and credit card spending has provoked sharp criticism from House leaders and the N.C. Republican Party. The GOP tweeted that the WBTV reporter “did a hit piece on Speaker Moore after interviewing & being turned down for a job as his spokesperson.”

The reporter, Nick Ochsner, expressed interest in working on Moore’s staff but said he never formally applied and instead sought a job in Charlotte, according to the station.

On Wednesday, Jeter emailed Republican House members suggesting that they refuse to speak with Ochsner.

“I am going to protect my members from a single journalist who may have an ax to grind,” Jeter said in an interview. “We have an obligation to talk to the press. We don’t have an obligation to talk to everybody.”

Jeter said details of Moore’s campaign credit card spending don’t raise any concerns.

“Once it was itemized, what did we find? Nothing,” he said. “I think we’ve got a convoluted system that makes it challenging for a lot of people.”

Colin Campbell