Raleigh, N.C. — Over the past decade, a public investigation by the State Board of Elections has been the first stop on the way to bigger problems for a number of political figures.
Trips to enter pleas before Wake County or federal judges for political figures such as former Gov. Mike Easley, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former House Speaker Jim Black – all Democrats – have started with campaign finance hearings before the state board.
One of the central features of all those hearings has been an appearance on the witness stand by Kim Westbrook Strach, the board's lead investigator. Armed with bank records, interview notes and a seemingly unshakable demeanor, Strach's testimony was key in unveiling wrongdoing.
On Wednesday, the 41-year-old mother of two will take the helm of the state's elections agency, overseeing not just investigations and campaign finance reporting but all of the state's election administrative apparatus.
Strach has a degree in criminal justice and worked as a probation and parole officer after graduating from East Carolina University. She also owned a dance and performing arts studio.
"I realized that what I loved about dance was it wasn't a business for me," Strach said.
So in 2000, she decided to put her degree back to work and applied for an opening at the State Board of Elections.
Strach spoke with @NCCapitol this week about her new job and the challenges she will face as she replaces longtime director Gary Bartlett.
@NCCapitol: How did your promotion come about? You were hired only minutes after the new election board members took their seats May 1?
Strach: I'm not entirely sure. No one really approached me until (Board Chairman) Josh Howard called me on Friday. Various people would say to me at various times, "You would be good for that job." I have never really thought about it. I really love my (current) job, but when it came up and I thought about it, I thought, "Well, I feel like I have the experience and the passion to do it."
@NCCapitol: You're known as an investigator. Are you ready to take on running the entire agency?
Strach: I know that's going to be a challenge for me to do that. I understand that I'm going to have to find a balance. I do think the investigations of our office are important, and I want to make sure they remain a very important part of what we do. But I understand there are other various important functions that this office serves the public with.
@NCCapitol: The General Assembly is working on a lot of different pieces of election law this session. If you could recommend one particular change, what would it be?
Strach: I want to hold off at this point and make sure I talk to and get input from all staff. I've been concentrating on campaign finance. There are a lot of bills out there that affect the administration of elections, and I want to make sure I have everybody's thoughts before I give an opinion on that.
@NCCapitol: What do you make of the voter ID bill? Are you ready to put a voter ID requirement into place if called upon to do so?
Strach: I certainly need to talk to other staff about that. I think this office has shown that we will implement whatever the legislature asks to implement. I don't have any doubt we can do whatever we're asked to do.
@NCCapitol: A lot of people are watching the campaign finance inquiry into campaign donations from sweepstakes companies to various state officials, including the governor. You are already looking into those donations, but do you expect the board to open a broader inquiry and hold hearings?
Strach: I don't know.
Democracy North Carolina director Bob Hall filed a complaint about contributions from certain sweepstakes industry figures, but the industry's donations had caught the attention of the board earlier than the formal complaint.
"We were looking into certain aspects of what his complaint addressed before he filed it, and it was because of some media articles about the different ways one of the particular sweepstakes operators, Chase Burns, had been disclosed on reports. Because they were disclosed in a couple of interesting ways, we started looking into that – was there something that would be suspicious of – whether or not there would be any impermissible contributions."
In particular, contributions from businesses to state level campaigns are not allowed.
Hall's complaint extended the inquiry, Strach said. For example, it asks whether someone other than the person who wrote the checks completed the "payee" lines without explicit authorization from the donor, something that used to be common practice for big industries trying to make a big impact by bundling a lot of checks together but is problematic under current law.
"That's a part of his complaint we are in the process of looking into, and he also has some concerns as to whether there was impermissible bundling by lobbyists, and that's something we're looking into," Strach said. Registered lobbyists are not allowed to make or bundle campaign contributions to state-level politicians.
@NCCapitol: Over the past dozen years, North Carolina has tried to strengthen its campaign finance laws and get rid of many of the practices that people see as corrupt. Do you think people have taken those efforts to heart or are they still trying to push the boundaries of what's acceptable?
Strach: I hope it's a new day, and I do think there's a lot more attention by the public than there was 10 years ago. And when there's attention by the public, you do get better compliance. There are always going to be people who are going to try to push the envelope and that's why I think our work is so important.