Liberal group accuses McCrory, bond committee of illegally coordinating
Posted February 24, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — A liberal nonprofit has filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections alleging the committee promoting a $2 billion bond referendum illegally coordinated production of a video advertisement with Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican seeking re-election
The complaint filed by Progress NC Action, which is frequently critical of McCrory and other conservatives, says the ad in question overstepped the boundaries outlined by the elections board when McCrory sat down for an interview used by the Connect NC bond referendum committee.
"The very specific parameters were outlined in the two opinion letters," said Michael Weisel, a lawyer representing Progress NC.
However, a third opinion, not referenced in the Progress NC complaint, may give the committee and McCrory campaign some legal cover.
A lawyer for the state board said elections officials would review the Progress NC complaint. The board sent a letter to the Connect NC bond committee asking officials there to submit a response to the complaint by March 1.
The Connect NC bond would borrow $2 billion, more than half of it for universities and community colleges. Voters will decide whether to authorize the borrowing when they go to the polls during the March 15 primaries.In December, Elections Director Kim Strach issued one opinion letter saying that candidates for office in 2016 could not serve as the face of bond advertisements. A second letter, issued less than two weeks later, said that candidates could appear in the advertisements but only if they were filmed at a public event and were not delivering scripted remarks.
The video at the center of the complaint has not aired on broadcast or cable television yet. However, the bond committee is poised to unleash a multimillion-dollar ad blitz in the next three weeks as the primary approaches.
In their filing, Progress NC says that it appears McCrory sat down for a well-lit, highly produced interview that appears to violate the guidelines set forth by that second opinion.
Brad Crone, a Democratic consultant working for the bond committee, said the complaint was "a distraction" and insisted the interview in question was taped after a rally kicking off the bond campaign.
"We have worked diligently to comply with the letter and the spirit of the State Board of Elections ruling," Crone said.
The Progress NC complaint points out that an ad featuring state Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, used footage of him speaking from a podium with much lower production values. McCrory appears to be shot, Weisel said, in much the same way his campaign commercials are taped. Had the video in question used video captured spontaneously during the event, Weisel said that there would be little basis for the complaint.
As is, the video could amount to an illegally coordinated expenditure on McCror'ys behalf funded in part by corporate contributions. Candidates for office in North Carolina are not allowed to take contributions from corporations.
McCrory is running for re-election and has a primary in which he faces former state Rep. Robert Brawley, R-Iredell, who has been opposed to the bond.Crone dismisses that line of reasoning, saying the committee is set to release a video later this week featuring a similar sit-down interview with Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond.
If the state board finds there was illegal coordination, McCrory's committee could be asked to forfeit campaign funds or face other sanctions. However, a third advisory opinion, this one issued directly to the bond committee, seems to clear the way for the type of interview Crone describes.
"It would be permissible for the Referendum Committee to interview candidates and use the footage for future communications without triggering a 'coordinated expenditure' as long as the candidate is not provided a script, given approval of a script or comments, advised or provided any details regarding how the content of the interview will be used in communications by the Referendum Committee," Strach wrote on Dec. 29.
Weisel said that opinion applies to a spontaneous interview such as the media "gaggle" that frequently follows appearances by public officials, not a produced sit-down Q&A complete with what appear to be retakes.
The McCrory campaign has long alleged that Progress NC coordinates its actions with Democratic candidates. Pointing to a ruling last fall that would allow greater coordination between such groups and candidates, McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz accused Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, of trying to torpedo the bond issue.
"They have been coordinating for months and laying the groundwork to try and thwart the bond with a bogus complaint just like this, which will only waste taxpayer money and get thrown out like their other frivolous complaints," Diaz said. "It's just a shame that the Democrats, their super PAC and their leading candidate for governor say they support higher education, but now it seems like they only support it if Democrats get the credit."
A spokesman for Cooper says the Democrat supports the bond.
"Attorney General Roy Cooper has been crystal clear since day one that he supports the bond referendum. Any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie," said Jamal Little, a spokesman for the Cooper campaign.