Local News

Legal Defense Fund Donations May Face More Scrutiny

Posted August 15, 2006

— Critics are asking the state Board of Elections to take a closer look at money in terms of legal defense funds.

Joe Sinsheimer, who created the Web site, Jimblackmustgo.com, is going after those types of funds--specifically the one supporters for House Speaker Jim Black started earlier this year.

"The people of North Carolina have a right to know who's giving money to our elected officials," Sinsheimer said.

Unnamed donors can give an unlimited amount of money to Black's defense fund. A spokeswoman for Black said friends in Charlotte set up the account to pay legal fees in a federal lobbying investigation.

Black has not been charged in that case and maintains he did nothing illegal. However, he asked for up to $200,000 in taxpayer money for his defense. The state Attorney General's Office approved $30,000. Anonymous backers to Black's defense fund can pay the rest.

Right now, state law allows for two types of funds -- campaign funds, which are regulated, and legal defense funds, which are not regulated. The complaint requests that both types of funds be treated equally.

"The speaker tomorrow could fully disclose all the names of his contributors if he wanted to, but for some reason, he feels he should be doing this in secret," Sinsheimer said.

A representative of Black's said she is not sure the speaker knows who is donating to his defense fund.

"Politically, it's more interesting in that we can't seem to get away from this undisclosed money," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College.

McLennan said there is a place for legal defense funds, but there should be full disclosure. Lawmakers, led in part by Black, would need to rewrite the rules. However, if the State Board of Elections agrees with Sinsheimer's complaint, it could make a temporary change.

Gary Bartlett, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, brought up the issue last year. He sent a letter to Black and Sen. Marc Basnight suggesting the rules be changed.

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