State Politics

NC Sen. Fletcher Hartsell indicted over campaign-finance reports

Fletcher Hartsell, a state senator from Concord, was indicted Tuesday by a Wake County grand jury on allegations that he signed false campaign-finance reports.

The 69-year-old Republican turned himself in midday at the Wake County magistrate’s office. He is charged with three counts of certifying a campaign-finance document as correct, while knowing it was not correct.

Indictments allege that he charged to his campaign expenses for maintenance work and utility bills for a former church building that he and his wife own in Concord. They also allege that while he reported that disbursements from his campaign to his law firm and several credit card companies were for campaign expenses, they actually were “payment for goods and services that ultimately benefited the defendant financially.”

If convicted of the low-level felonies, Hartsell – a licensed attorney in North Carolina since 1972 – could face trouble with the N.C. State Bar, too.

“These indictments come at the conclusion of an investigation that has gone on for a number of years,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday. “When there’s so much cynicism of people serving in public office as elected officials, it’s important that we remember that no one is above the law.”

Freeman added that campaign-finance laws were adopted to ensure the transparency of public officials.

Hartsell is the longest-serving current member of the Senate, having served during the administrations of five governors. Though he plans to finish his 13th term this year, Hartsell is not seeking re-election. His attorney, Wade Smith of Raleigh, described him as “one of the most effective legislators in the General Assembly” for years.

“I know for so many people it is a sad day because Fletcher Hartsell has been indicted,” Smith said. “He has been so often a voice of moderation and reason. He has reached out to people on both sides of the aisle to seek compromise yet at the same time he has been a courageous advocate for the things in which he believed such as local welfare reform, public health legislation, public schools and higher education issues.”

Hartsell took time out of a busy day at the legislature to deal with the charges. He led a judiciary committee meeting in the morning and returned for Senate floor votes in the evening after being booked.

The State Board of Elections voted about a year 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. A federal investigation is pending.

A News & Observer investigation of Hartsell’s campaign spending triggered the state’s extensive review.

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 last year on the board’s action, Hartsell said he believed he fully complied with the law.

The elections board’s investigation discovered 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 board looked into campaign payments of nearly $2,500 to Hartsell’s company that owned the church property.

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.

Hartsell had filed to run for election to a 14th term but abruptly withdrew his candidacy, saying in a statement that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren.