McCrory, referendum campaign tell elections board they followed ad rules

Posted March 2, 2016
Updated March 3, 2016

— Lawyers for Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign and the referendum committee advocating for the Connect NC Bond told state elections officials Wednesday they followed existing campaign finance rules when the governor appeared in an online ad for the group last month.

Both groups filed responses to a complaint that Progress NC Action, a liberal advocacy group, filed with the State Board of Elections in February. That complaint alleged the committee illegally featured McCrory in a commercial, giving the governor what amounted to a corporately funded in-kind contribution. McCrory appears on the March 15 ballot, as does the bond question, which asks voters to borrow $2 billion for university buildings and other needs.

Rules laid out by elections officials in December allow bond committees to use video of speeches and interviews with candidates in their ads. But they're not able to coordinate the ads with candidates and can't provide scripts or other suggestions on what to say. An ad that appears online appears to walk up to that line. Filmed just after a rally for the bonds, it appears to be staged professionally and in a way that makes it appear similar to a candidate's highly-produced campaign ad.

"The Committee's interviews with elected officials after the January 5 rally were arranged in a straightforward manner," wrote Steven Long, a lawyer for the Connect NC bond committee. "The Committee's staff asked several government officials, including Gov. McCrory and Rep. Goodman, if they would be willing to answer questions before a television camera to explain what they thought of the bond. ... None of the officials interviewed were aware beforehand of the questions that would be posed, none received a script or suggested comments form the Committee, and none were told how the film footage of their interviews would be used."

Progress NC Action also complained that Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, appears in a pro-bond ad.

Likewise, Jason Torchinsky, a lawyer for McCrory, said the governor and the committee followed the guidelines set out in December through a series of three letters by Elections Director Kim Strach. However, he urged the board to revise its guidance to allow candidates even greater freedom to participate in bond campaigns.

"The Board's current position infringes upon the rights of incumbent lawmakers and candidates to engage in activities in connection with ballot referenda," he wrote.

There is no firm timeline for the state board to handle the complaint. However, General Counsel Joshua Lawson pointed out that, because the bond is on the March 15 ballot, the board would try to move quickly so that all parties had clear guidance for the final two weeks of the campaign.

In a response sent to reporters late Wednesday night, Michael Weisel, a lawyer for Progress NC Action, told the state board that McCrory and Connect NC had failed to address issues raised by the original complaint. He pointed out that both committees have used the same vendor to place television ads.

"The Complaint raised the spectre of impermissible coordination if common production vendors or agents were employed, or the separate vendors and agents of Connect NC and the McCrory Committee both were observing and commenting on the interview," Weisel wrote.


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