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Duke Energy PAC donations, refunds spark complaint

Posted September 18, 2019 2:52 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2019 3:59 p.m. EDT

— A long-time campaign finance watchdog filed a complaint Wednesday against Duke Energy's political action committee, arguing that more than $40,000 in now-refunded campaign donations to key North Carolina legislators were illegal contributions.

The donations caught Bob Hall's eye because the checks were logged just before the start of this year's legislative session, then refunded in the following weeks and months.

Most of the legislators involved, or their campaign treasurers, told WRAL News that Duke's PAC asked for the refunds, and they sent them. In some cases, they said, they weren't entirely sure why.

A company spokeswoman said it was a timing issue: The checks were printed in December but given out in January because the PAC had already hit campaign contribution limits for the 2018 election cycle.

"To eliminate any signs of impropriety by either party, we contacted each campaign and requested that the checks be returned or refunded," spokeswoman Meredith Archie said when WRAL News looked into the refunds last month. "All contributions were refunded. We should have voided the 2018 checks and reissued them with 2019."

The explanation only raised more problems with Hall, the former head of Democracy North Carolina who has a long history in campaign finance research. Hall filed a complaint Wednesday with the State Board of Elections, calling on the board to investigate and fine the company's PAC three times the donation total, which would be nearly $125,000.

He accused the company of making excess donations in 2018, then hiding it, and he pointed out that the legislators involved are key to the company's push to change North Carolina's rate-setting process for electricity through Senate Bill 559, a heavily lobbied measure still in play at the statehouse. The PAC's latest paperwork with the state doesn't mention the refunds, and its reports to the federal government mislabel the funds as contributions for the 2020 primaries instead of excess 2018 contributions, Hall said in his complaint.

"Duke Energy’s quick actions to retrieve the $41,600 may save it from being penalized for making illegal contributions, but it must be held accountable for its false, incomplete and incorrect reporting," Hall wrote in his complaint, calling the PAC's reports "a cover up."

Archie said in an email Wednesday that Duke will review the complaint once it's received and reply to the State Board of Elections, but she said any "claim that we made illegal contributions is false and misleading."

"We are committed to remaining transparent with our employee PAC contributions," she said in the email.

The donations, all $5,200 maximum contributions under 2018 limits that have since increased to $5,400 for the new election cycle, went to:

  • Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown
  • Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon
  • Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue
  • House Speaker Tim Moore
  • House Rules Chairman David Lewis
  • House Majority Leader John Bell
  • House Appropriations Chairman Jason Saine

Blue, D-Wake, was the only Democrat involved, but he's also a primary sponsor on Senate Bill 559, Duke's top legislative priority this session. The bill would give the North Carolina Utilities Commission new ways to consider and approve rate increases.

Hall noted in his complaint that these donations were the first time in a decade that Duke's PAC donated to more than two lawmakers in the weeks immediately before the start of a new legislative biennium. PACs and others are prohibited from donating to legislators during a General Assembly session, but the days just before session are a common time for giving.