RALEIGH, N.C. — There has been a lot of talk this election season about outside third-party groups funding controversial ads in the presidential race. Now it is happening at the state level.
The state Board of Elections ruled on Friday that a campaign ad by the Republican Governors Association for Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine violated election rules because it supported a candidate and not an issue.
"It just said Patrick Ballantine is for North Carolina. I think it's safe to say all of us are for North Carolina," said Robert Hunter, attorney for the Republican Governors Association.
The board also said the RGA broke the law because it used corporate money to buy time in the state's major TV markets last month, which is prohibited.
The State Board of Elections will now require the RGA to register as a political action committee. Some argue that makes it harder for the RGA to help future candidates in the state.
"It's saying once and for all, you can't cross the line between issue advocacy and express advocacy and use corporate money, which has a long history of being prohibited in North Carolina elections," said Scott Falmlen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
The Democrats may have won the battle, but at a public relations price. During the proceeding, Falmlen was asked under oath if he has ever lied to the media.
"I have made purposeful misstatements. What's the difference between a purposeful misstatement and a lie That's subject to interpretation," he said.
The board is scheduled to meet Thursday to determine what penalty -- if any -- to levy against the RGA, which could include a fine. RGA attorneys say they will probably appeal.
Falmlen originally filed a complaint with the board, contending state law prohibits corporate-backed nonprofits from airing direct endorsements.
"Abiding by the law is just not politics," Falmlen said. "It clearly supports the election of Patrick Ballantine and it's clearly using corporate money to pay for the ad, which is illegal under North Carolina law."
"The Democrats are exactly right that you cannot use corporate money for political purposes. But, it's up for a judge to decide whether these ads are political or whether they're in that gray area that you could call electioneering or issue ads," said Chris Heagarty of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education.
The Republican Governors Association is not so diplomatic.
Harvey Valentine said, "The ads are legal and appropriate. The complaint is a desperate attempt by the Democrats to stifle debate."
Under the law, candidates are shielded while the unaffiliated groups see how far they can go.
"I don't know that it's a heinous attempt to circumvent the law as much as let's see how much we can get away with it," Heagarty said.