Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County judge should reconsider throwing out a $30,000 fine against a former high-profile lobbyist who worked to change the state's "Buy America" law so that imported iron could be used on highway projects, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
A unanimous three-judge appeals court panel ruled that Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway should consider Don Beason's lobbying activities for Sigma Corp., a New Jersey company that imports foreign-made iron and steel. Ridgeway ruled last year that North Carolina's law defines a lobbyist as someone who communicates directly with legislators or their employees, and there was no evidence Beason directly contacted anyone for his client.
But the appeals court ruled that the judge didn't consider a second part of the state lobbying law: whether Beason's activities for the client constituted lobbying.
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who enforces state lobbying laws, claimed Don Beason and his son, fellow lobbyist Mark Beason, were paid by Sigma with money funneled from an Indian iron exporters' trade association and other companies aiming to expand U.S. sales.
Marshall initially slapped Don Beason with a record-setting $111,000 in 2010, claiming the money was routed through Sigma so he wouldn't have to disclose who he worked for. Later in the process, Marshall reduced Don Beason's initial fine to $30,000.
Ridgeway last year erased Don Beason's $30,000 fine and another $6,000 fine against Mark Beason.
But it has never been definitively established whether either man was aware of the financial arrangement between Sigma and the five other entities interested in relaxing North Carolina's "Buy America" law, the appeals court said.
The appeals court backed Ridgeway's ruling that parts of North Carolina's 2007 lobbying reform law are ambiguous and Marshall's office overreached in fining the Beasons.
Don Beason, once recognized as one of the state's most influential lobbyists, suspended his work for several years. His reputation suffered a blow after former state House Speaker Jim Black identified Beason as the lobbyist who provided him a $500,000 interest-free loan. Black, a Democrat, went to prison on a public corruption charge. Beason called the loan "a serious error in judgment" and apologized.
Don Beason has had one client, a Philadelphia-area public relations firm, for the past two years, according to state registration records. He declined comment Tuesday to The Associated Press. Mark Beason now lobbies for pawn brokers and freight railroad operators.
In a second case, the same judges ruled Ridgeway ruled correctly last year when he scrapped the fine against Mark Beason.
The appeals court ruled in a third related case that Ridgeway was right in shutting down Don Beason's claim that Marshall's office shouldn't be allowed to increase fines for multiple lobbying violations.