State Politics

Former NC legislator, Fletcher Hartsell, gets probation in state’s campaign finance case

Former North Carolina legislator Fletcher Hartsell rose before a judge the second time this week and acknowledged guilt related to several years of improperly spending and reporting campaign finances.

“It’s a sad day,” Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said before handing down a sentence of up to 18 months of unsupervised probation.”In cases like this, from time to time, I have had a few things to say. You know, unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say.”

Hartsell, 70, admitted that he filed campaign finance reports on three occasions knowing they included false information.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman laid out the details for Stephens after Hartsell entered a guilty plea as part of an arrangement with prosecutors.

The state investigation found that Hartsell spent more than $200,000 from his campaign account to pay personal expenses from 2009 to 2012.

The criminal investigation followed a probe by the state elections board that revealed Hartsell spent campaign donations on dinners with his family, haircuts, shoe repairs, speeding tickets, part of his driver’s license renewal fee, and more. The state elections probe came after a series of stories published by The News & Observer.

Freeman said the state investigation showed the former state senator, while representing Cabarrus and Union counties, spent thousands of dollars on a church property that he and his wife, Tana, owned in Concord. Hartsell had reported the expenditure as one that went to charity.

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.

Federal prison sentence

The action in the Wake County courtroom came three days after a federal judge handed down an eight-month prison sentence for two tax-law violations and a count of mail fraud related to the misuse of campaign finances. He also was ordered to pay $63,000 in restitution.

At the sentencing hearing in Winston-Salem, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder told Hartsell that at a time when he should be “putting a capstone on his career,” the ex-lawmaker from Concord had instead added a “permanent stain” to it, according to The Associated Press.

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.

Hartsell, an elected official for a quarter of a century in the North Carolina General Assembly — as a state senator and member of the state House of Representatives, was a Republican who at one point was ranked as a powerful legislator.

With expertise in complex finance and tax law, he also was 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.

‘One of the darkest moments’

Hartsell was asked by the judge on Friday if he wanted to address the court.

As a lawyer, whose license to practice law has been suspended by the N.C. State Bar, Hartsell said he would rely on the words of his attorney.

Wade Smith, the Raleigh-based lawyer who represented Hartsell on the charges in state court, gave a brief overview of Hartsell’s life, starting with his graduation from Davidson College in 1969 to where they were on Friday, standing in criminal court.

Hartsell and his wife, who sat behind him in the courtroom, celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this past weekend, Smith said.

Both Hartsell and his wife have done mission work — in Haiti, Lebanon, Armenia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Smith said that after Hartsell was charged and people found out that Smith and his nephew Roger Smith Jr. would be representing the former legislator, the law firm heard from many people.

“We probably heard from more Democrats than Republicans who loved this man,” Smith said, pointing to Hartsell beside him.

Smith said Hartsell does not “live in a mansion on the hill. His cars are old cars. He’s had a very, very busy life, but a simple life.”

Though Stephens was limited in the sentence he could hand down because of the federal prison sentence that Hartsell already faced in the case, Smith urged the judge to impose something that would let Hartsell walk out of the courtroom on Friday and go home.

“While this prosecution was absolutely necessary,” Wade Smith said, “it did silence one of the great voices of moderation. ...This is one of the darkest moments of his life. ...He’s on his way to prison soon.”

Hartsell, who is to report to federal prison in July, left the Wake County courtroom holding his wife’s hand. He declined to talk with the media gathered in the hallway.

Freeman described the plea arrangement as one she hoped would help restore “the public’s confidence in our elections.”

“We are satisfied at the end of the day that people here in North Carolina have been served in this matter through this joint prosecution,” Freeman said.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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