Jury hears secret FBI recordings at NC political donor's bribery trial

Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, who worked with the FBI, takes the stand during the trial's second day.

Posted Updated
North Carolina insurance magnate Greg Lindberg leaves his federal bribery trial in Charlotte Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Prosecutors played recordings Wednesday of a wealthy insurance company owner and his associate repeatedly asking North Carolina's insurance commissioner to get a state regulator off their backs, accusing her of incompetence, vengefulness and passive-aggressiveness.

They pitched Commissioner Mike Causey on a solution: Replace her at the Department of Insurance with one of the Greg Lindberg's own company executives, who'd be "well taken care of" to move into the much lower-paying state job.

When Causey asks "what's in it for me," Lindberg has an answer: Up to $2 million in campaign donations, run through an independent expenditure committee separate from Causey's re-election campaign.

By law, Lindberg says on the recording, Causey can't coordinate with that sort of campaign. But Lindberg also says he's open to suggestions on who could run it.

"Like your brother," he said with a laugh.

Causey joined in. But Lindberg didn't know he was recording this conversation, and dozens of hours of others, for the FBI.

Lindberg, who was North Carolina's largest political donor by far in recent years, was indicted last year, along with two associates: John Gray, who the jury in the federal trial heard repeatedly on tape Wednesday, and John Palermo, an insurance executive and Chatham County Republican Party chair Lindberg hoped Causey would hire.

Former congressman Robin Hayes, who was chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party at the time, was indicted as well, in part because some of the money allegedly earmarked for Causey's bribe flowed through the state GOP.

Hayes pleaded guilty last fall to lying to investigators, and he may testify against Lindberg and the others. Former Gov. Pat McCrory, who recently acknowledged that he did some "strategic planning" work for Lindberg's companies, may testify as well, based on a list of potential witnesses announced Tuesday and reported by The News & Observer.

Lindberg, Gray and Palermo are on trial together, and Causey spent most of Wednesday afternoon on the stand, putting recorded conversations into context for the jury. His testimony will continue Thursday, and the trial is slated to last up to three weeks.

Lindberg owns a complex web of companies, and he invested insurance premiums in dozens of them. These "affiliated investments" in companies with the same ownership concerned state regulators.

Lindberg's companies struck a deal with the Department of Insurance under Causey's predecessor, current North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin, to invest up to 40 percent in the companies he owned, well above the 10 percent industry standard. Causey's regime was unwinding that deal, which the commissioner testified Wednesday he couldn't find formalized outside of a few emails, and Lindberg's companies were under examination at the department.

The department would eventually take control of three Lindberg insurance companies and a re-insurance company, but in 2017 and 2018, Lindberg's concerns at the DOI centered largely on a deputy commissioner: Jackie Obusek.

He and Gray, a timber consultant who met Lindberg through a land deal and became a political fixer of sorts, set clandestine meetings: Twice at small airports, where Lindberg could arrive by private jet, and once in a restaurant closed during the day and owned, in Gray's words, by "a good Republican."

"(Where we can) talk about what we need to talk about and not have to worry about other ears," he told Causey on the tape.

A moment later, Gray says he'll text Causey meeting details, or better yet call.

"Probably better off not doing email," he said on the recorded phone call.

On the recordings, Gray and Lindberg told Causey that Obusek never liked the 40 percent deal and that she didn't like Ray Martinez, her superior under Goodwin who Lindberg's company hired after Causey let him go. They repeatedly say Lindberg's corporate and investment structure may be too ingenious for her to follow.

"Way over her head, and she's got animus," Lindberg says on one recording. "You need a guy like John Palermo."

A little later, Lindberg threatens to move his companies to Oklahoma and sue Obusek for malicious treatment, then promises that, if Causey brings in Palermo, "the whole thing goes away."

Causey testified Wednesday that he didn't buy the criticisms and that the companies didn't move to Oklahoma. Obusek remains at the Department of Insurance, and Causey called her Wednesday "a qualified CPA" who has "done great work."


Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.