@NCCapitol

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Legislative leaders met with indicted donor; Senate GOP declined donation

Posted April 3, 2019 8:55 p.m. EDT
Updated April 4, 2019 12:52 p.m. EDT

Top Republican legislative leaders met repeatedly with Greg Lindberg, the North Carolina political donor who has been indicted on federal bribery charges, they confirmed Wednesday.

House Speaker Tim Moore said he met the wealthy Durham businessman "on a couple of occasions." Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he went to as many as four meetings with Lindberg, but they never met alone.

Neither Berger nor the Senate Republican caucus fund he heads took donations from Lindberg, who is accused of trying to bribe the state's insurance commissioner with campaign cash.

But there was an offer. A source involved in fundraising for Senate Republicans at the time said Wednesday that Lindberg's associates talked about donating "a considerably large amount."

That occurred near the end of 2017, and word was moving in the state's campaign finance circles that someone new was writing six-figure checks. For the Senate caucus, the answer was "thanks, but no thanks," the source said.

"You can count on two hands the number of people in North Carolina who could and would (write those checks)," the source said Wednesday. "It was new people ... and it just didn't feel right."

Berger, R-Rockingham, told reporters Wednesday that he wasn't aware of Lindberg offering a contribution.

Lindberg gave the House Republican Caucus fund that Moore, R-Cleveland, heads $290,000 in the fall of 2017 and January 2018. Moore said Wednesday that the wealthy businessman never asked for anything in exchange.

Lindberg didn't donate directly to Moore's individual campaign fund, but Ray Martinez, who moved from the state Department of Insurance to a Lindberg company now targeted by federal investigators, gave $1,000.

It's all just a drop in the bucket from the more than $6 million Lindberg and people associated with his companies have given North Carolina political groups since 2016. Lindberg himself is responsible for $5.5 million of that, including money the FBI says he funneled through the North Carolina Republican Party as a pass-through effort to bribe Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, who the indictment says notified the feds.

Lindberg's federal indictment was unsealed Tuesday, along with indictments for two of his associates and state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office have accused Lindberg of pushing Causey to ease DOI regulators off business interests the department was scrutinizing. Hayes, Lindberg and his two associates all pleaded not guilty to the charges at their first appearances Tuesday.

Most of Lindberg's money flowed to committees that can accept unlimited donations, as opposed to individual campaign committees, which are capped now at $5,400 per donor each election. The biggest recipients in North Carolina politics have been:

  • N.C. Republican Party ($2 million – $1.5 million to the state party and $500,000 to the party's arm that focuses on federal elections)
  • N.C. Republican Council of State Committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest ($1.4 million)
  • Trust and Prosperity, a super-PAC that supports Forest ($1 million)
  • N.C. Democratic Party ($500,000)
  • N.C. Growth and Prosperity, a PAC created last year with John Palermo, one of Lindberg's indicted associates, as treasurer ($500,000)
  • N.C. Opportunity Committee, a PAC that supported former Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin's unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2016 ($450,000, though $100,000 of that came the year after Goodwin's loss)

That's just money from Lindberg himself. He's Forest's biggest donor, working through the two committees. The lieutenant governor said Tuesday that Lindberg never asked him for anything in return and noted several times that Lindberg didn't give to his individual campaign committee.

But Forest's committee got more than $60,000 from people associated with Lindberg's businesses, including $1,150 from Palermo, according to an accounting produced by Bob Hall, a semi-retired government watchdog who pulled online state campaign finance records.

Democrats also got Lindberg's money

Goodwin has repeatedly declined interview requests. He said in a statement Wednesday that he did "not recall being asked to take or direct any action to help Greg Lindberg or his companies during my time as Insurance Commissioner." He has said repeatedly through a spokesman that he cooperated with federal investigators and that he is not a target of their inquiry.

Goodwin now chairs the North Carolina Democratic Party and was credited by party staff for bringing in the Lindberg donations. He did some consulting work for Lindberg after leaving office, and two of his top lieutenants at the department, Martinez and Louis Belo, went to work for one of Lindberg's companies after Goodwin's loss.

Goodwin's re-election committee got about $125,000 in 2016 from people tied to Lindberg's companies, including $9,500 from Lindberg and $10,000 from his wife, according to Hall's tally.

The N.C. Opportunity Committee, a separate PAC that supported Goodwin but which Goodwin did not control, not only got $450,000 from Lindberg himself but another $75,000 from Dunhill Holdings, one of hundreds of companies Lindberg owns or is involved in.

The Republican Council of State Committee was set up to give GOP officials elected statewide a way to take unlimited donations outside of the state party, which operates under similar rules. But most council members have said they declined to be part of the group or left shortly after it formed, leaving Forest and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson as the only active members.

"The way I remember it, we all voted to allow it if that's what somebody wanted to do," Causey said Wednesday. "I personally, I didn't oppose it. I just felt like I didn't want to tie my campaign to somebody else's campaign."

"If you tie yourself to somebody else's campaign, if something happens to another campaign ... at least perception-wise, you're tied," he said.

Forest chairs the group and said Tuesday that the finance committee, whose members he would not identify, would have to meet to decide what to do with the money now that Lindberg has been indicted.

Johnson said Wednesday that he never met Lindberg or his indicted associates. He said he had no knowledge of Lindberg asking for anything in return for his money.

"Right now, I know what you know in terms of the indictment," he said.

Asked whether the committee would disgorge the money, Johnson said that's "a decision we'll have to make."

No one has said so far that they plan to give the money away, except Causey, who returned donations from Lindberg and his wife in 2017 and sent the $250,000 that came his campaign's way through the state Republican Party to the U.S. Marshals Service last year.

A state Democratic Party spokesman on Wednesday called its donations from Lindberg a "legal contribution, from a legal donor, and legally reported."

Rep. Graig Meyer, R-Orange, echoed that sentiment.

"There are donations to Democrats. If they are legal, then they're legal. There's a difference between legal and illegal, no matter who the donor is," Meyer said.

Still, Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, said the indictments are evidence of the problem with mega-donors influencing public policy.

"This news is bad, but no one considers themselves entirely shocked that money in politics is leading to alleged criminal behavior," Jackson said.

NC politicians weren't only recipients

Lindberg also gave at the federal level, contributing sporadically until the 2017-18 election cycle, when he and a company he controlled donated $2.4 million to federal election committees across the country.

He gave to the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as groups supporting North Carolina U.S. House members Mark Walker and Richard Hudson. The New Republican PAC, which supported Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s 2018 Senate run, got $300,000, and at least $40,000 went to Republican committees in New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and California.

Democrat-aligned groups also received more than $50,000.

Eli Research, one of Lindberg's companies, dumped $200,000 each into Kansas First and the Ohio-based Insuring America’s Future, both super-PACs that advocate for the insurance industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lindberg has also given at the state level in other states, including Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Washington. Between him, his wife and his companies, he’s shelled out at least $8.35 million since 2016 in federal races and state-level campaigns in at least seven different states.

Causey, who the indictment indicates was working with federal investigators in secret, said Wednesday that he never warned any of his political colleagues off taking Lindberg's money.

"I never got involved with anybody else's campaign," he said. "That's totally up to each person to make those type of decisions."

A number of state legislators and other politicians took smaller donations from Lindberg, including Se. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, who said Lindberg's $5,200 check came in as part of a fundraising dinner Lindberg didn't attend in 2017.

"I have never met Mr. Lindberg, never seen him in person, never had any correspondence with him," Jackson said Wednesday.

House Rules Chairman David Lewis also got $5,200 – then the maximum per election – in 2017. Lewis, R-Harnett, said he met Lindberg only one time, and "we didn't even have a conversation."

Hayes announced the day before his indictment became public that he wouldn't seek re-election as state GOP chairman, citing his health. On Wednesday he announced that he has stepped away from most of his day-to-day duties at the party, and his attorney put out a statement saying that Hayes "steadfastly denies the allegations made against him in this case."

Asked Wednesday whether Hayes should step down, Moore declined to get involved.

"I try not to intervene directly in what the party does," Moore said, adding that the indictment "caught all of us off guard."