RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Beverly Perdue's former campaign finance chief pleaded guilty Wednesday to obstruction of justice in connection with violations in her 2008 campaign.
Peter Anthony Reichard entered an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to plead guilty, while maintaining his innocence, and admit it is in his best interest to take the plea deal because there is sufficient evidence to find him guilty.
Reichard, 54, of Greensboro, didn't comment, other than to answer questions from Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, during the half-hour court hearing, but he issued a statement later in which he said he pleaded guilty only to spare his family the expense and hardship of a trial.
"I have spent most of my adult life working hard to serve my community and the state of North Carolina. I acknowledge that I have made some mistakes along the way and today pay the price," he said.
Stephens suspended a six- to eight-month prison sentence and placed Reichard on unsupervised probation for two years. He also ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine and barred him from working on any campaign or for any political group and soliciting money for candidates.
"I think I have taken him out of the political game," Stephens said, adding that he didn't order an active prison sentence for Reichard because he didn't personally benefit from the scheme.
Reichard funneled $32,000 in under-the-table payments from Charles Michael Fulenwider, a wealthy Perdue donor from Morganton, through a private Chapel Hill company Reichard controlled to pad the salary of a full-time campaign fundraiser in 2007 and 2008, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
Julia Leigh Sitton of Morganton, the former director of Perdue's western office, initially suggested that Fulenwider hire her and allow her to work on the campaign, Willoughby said, and Reichard encouraged the arrangement.
Reichard later drew up contracts in which Fulenwider would pay his firm, Tryon Capital Ventures LLC, $2,000 a month for investment advice, and Reichard would forward the money to Sitton, Willoughby said. The North Carolina Democratic Party also paid Sitton $3,000 a month for her campaign work.
Sitton was indicted on an obstruction of justice charge last month in the case. She also is charged with certifying a false campaign finance report.
Fulenwider hasn't been charged in the case.
Willoughby said the arrangement lasted from August 2007 through the May 2008 primary, when Fulenwider thought it had ended. Reichard continued to send him invoices for Sitton's work, however, and paid for Sitton's campaign work through the November 2008 election, Willoughby said.
Reichard had long served as one of the top Democratic fundraisers in North Carolina. Prior to working for Perdue, he served as finance director for Gov. Mike Easley and 2002 Senate candidate Erskine Bowles. Easley pleaded guilty to a felony charge last year related to his campaign finances.
Defense attorney Hart Miles asked for a lenient sentence, noting that Reichard has been active in the community for years and has no prior criminal record.
"There have been a lot of good things that he's done, both for Greensboro and the state of North Carolina," Miles said.
Stephens said he couldn't understand how someone in Reichard's position could get involved in such "sheer foolishness."
"The most basic fundamental principle of democracy is a free and fair election," Stephens said, noting that even strict campaign rules don't stop elections from turning into "an uncontrolled free-for-all in which honesty and truth and fairness is completely abandoned."
Willoughby said he also didn't understand why Reichard put the political influence he had built up on the line to get some extra money for one campaign staffer.
"I've been doing this for a right long time, and I've decided that, in many ways, this political process is like electricity – I know it's there, (but) I don't understand how it works all the time," he said.
Within hours of the plea, Perdue's campaign surrendered $32,000 to the State Board of Elections to offset the amount illegally paid to Sitton. Campaign manager Fiona Conroy also said the campaign would make a donation to a food bank for $9,100 — the amount of money Reichard gave to the campaign over the years.
In addition to Reichard and Sitton, Perdue family friend Trawick Hamilton "Buzzy" Stubbs Jr. of New Bern faces felony charges of obstruction of justice and certifying a false campaign finance report. The charges stem from more than $28,000 in undisclosed flights he allegedly provided during the 2008 campaign on his private planes. Stubbs, who was the law partner of Perdue's deceased first husband, had already provided the campaign with the maximum $4,000 contribution allowed under state law.
In February, Robert Lee Caldwell of Morganton was charged with a felony for allegedly deceiving Perdue's campaign by hiding the source of money used to pay for a 2007 flight provided to Perdue. He is accused of soliciting a check for a campaign donation to Perdue from Morganton barber James Fleming.
The State Board of Elections fined Perdue's campaign last year for its tardy reporting of campaign flights, but Willoughby has said several times that the investigation into her campaign finances hasn't turned up any wrongdoing by the governor.
Reichard's plea deal didn't include any stipulation that he cooperate with investigators, but Willoughby said he could be called as a witness if any of the cases go to trial.