Raleigh, N.C. — Current lobbyist and former state Rep. Mike Hager is "co-hosting" a fundraiser for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, but says he hasn't broken the state law against political contributions by lobbyists.
Good-government advocates say it's confusing and gives the appearance of impropriety.
Hager, a Rutherford County Republican who served as House majority leader before resigning his seat last August, opened his lobbying firm, Hager Strategic Solutions, in February, after the six-month cooling-off period required by state law.
On Sunday, Hager posted on Facebook a flier for a private fundraiser for Forest, a Republican widely expected to consider a run for governor in 2020. As most fundraiser invitations do, this one includes a list of donors – "sponsors" and "hosts" and "co-hosts" and "patrons," depending on how much they've contributed.
Hager is listed as a "co-host" of the event, which, according to the flier, requires a $1,000 contribution.
"Please join me at the event below and you will understand my admiration for our Lt. Gov.," Hager commented.
North Carolina law prohibits lobbyists from donating to political campaigns, a change that was made in 2007 in the wake of a scandal involving former House Speaker Jim Black.
Hager, whose lobbyist registration was active as of Monday, denied having made a contribution.
"I can’t give any money to it. I’m going to congratulate him on his great success," he told WRAL News.
Asked whether his listing as a co-host might give people the impression that he had contributed, Hager shrugged it off.
"I’ve never worried a whole lot about what people think," he responded. "It’s the actuality of the law that we’re complying with. That’s the only issue I have."
A 2008 opinion by the State Board of Elections seems to back that up.
In the opinion, requested by the North Carolina Professional Lobbyists Association, then-elections director Gary Bartlett clarified that lobbyists can solicit campaign contributions from other people as long as the legislature is not in session.
During session, solicitation is banned. However, lawmakers recessed on June 30 for more than 10 days, so the ban is not currently in effect.
"Hosting" a fundraiser is allowed, according to the Board of Elections, as long as no contribution is made, nothing of cash value is provided and the event doesn't take place at the lobbyist's home or office.
North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform director Jane Pinsky says that needs to change.
"Although the law prohibits Hager from making any contribution, this invitation would make anyone think he had contributed $1,000 to the campaign," Pinsky said. "We need a firewall between lobbyists and the people they lobby when it comes to campaign contributions. Our current law needs to be reinforced so that lobbyists may not serve as hosts for fundraisers or put their names on invitations, even if they are not contributing money.
"North Carolinians need to know that decisions legislators and other elected officials make are not influenced by money raised for them by lobbyists," she added.
WRAL News asked the Forest campaign whether it had concerns it might be perceived as accepting an improper contribution. The campaign has not yet responded.