Local Politics

Reforms in campaign finance urged

Posted October 30, 2009

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— The State Board of Elections on Friday called on lawmakers to make political candidates responsible for penalties their campaigns incur through violations of campaign finance laws.

The push came as the board ordered former Gov. Mike Easley's campaign committee to pay $100,000 for not reporting some flights Easley took aboard donors' planes while on the campaign trail in 2000 and 2004.

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John Wallace, an attorney for the campaign, said there's not enough money in the coffers to pay off the fine and forfeiture. He said the campaign would make every effort to raise the money to meet its obligation to the elections board.

Under current state law, Easley can't be held liable for the penalty.

"We need to have a change in law which will require candidates to accept ownership of their committees," said Larry Leake, chairman of the elections board.

Leake noted that former House Speaker Jim Black's campaign also still owes the elections board for fines and forfeitures ordered three years ago. Black is serving a federal prison sentence on public corruption charges that out of a campaign finance hearing.

Former Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps' campaign also didn't have the funds to pay an elections board penalty in 2002, Leake said.

"I do think that what's at stake here is the integrity of our elections process and the faith of the voters in our democracy," board member Anita Earls said.

During the week-long elections board hearing, evidence was presented showing the free flow of money between candidates and political parties and a lack of campaign oversight to ensure compliance with finance laws.

Republican legislative leaders quickly jumped on the reform idea.

"Suggestions about campaign finance reform are welcome, as Senate Republicans will soon offer comprehensive legislation to address corruption in campaigns," Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Paul Stam said he also would support the board's reform idea.

Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight said in a statement that lawmakers would "take a long look" at the elections board's recommendation.

"We need to continue working to restore the public's trust in government," Basnight said.

Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said lawmakers didn't take up key campaign finance bills during the past two legislative sessions, and she believes the board's recommendation to the General Assembly is a step in the right direction.

"I'm hoping they move on it at least at the beginning of the (2010) session, if not before, because we're going back to an election year," Pinsky said.

Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic consultant and political watchdog, said the time is right for legislators back campaign finance reform, but he doubts they will.

"The defense of 'I was too busy. I didn't know what was going on,' we can't let that happen anymore," Sinsheimer said. "I think (lawmakers are) going to have problems with it. I don't think they're going to want to make themselves personally liable."

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