Local Politics

Dems pay for questionable campaign contributions

Posted July 23, 2009 3:52 p.m. EDT
Updated July 27, 2009 3:18 p.m. EDT

— The North Carolina Democratic Party paid the state Board of Elections more than $24,000 Thursday to resolve questions about several contributions to the party during the 2004 campaign that might have been improper.

The seven in-kind contributions included flights on private planes provided to former Gov. Mike Easley that have become the subject of a federal grand jury investigation.

The grand jury subpoenaed Easley's travel records and has spoken to the Highway Patrol officer who headed his security detail.

The Board of Elections staff also has been reviewing Easley's campaign finance and travel records, but board Chairman Larry Leake said Thursday that there's not enough information yet to decide whether Easley would face a public hearing like those for former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, House Speaker Jim Black and state Rep. Thomas Wright.

"We have received information that has caused concern," Leake said. "We are going to have a thorough and complete investigation, and the truth will come out."

He said he expects a decision by September. A hearing could result in a possible fine or criminal prosecution.

The News & Observer newspaper has reported that several businessmen flew Easley on their personal and corporate planes and that the flights were never disclosed on Easley's campaign finance reports.

State campaign laws bar corporate contributions to candidates and limit individual contributions to $4,000 per election. Some of the flights could have been valued at more than $4,000 or could have put an individual over the limit when combined with other contributions.

The in-kind contributions were made to the Democratic Party, but it's illegal to contribute to a political party with the intent to benefit a particular candidate.

"We do not know that these contributions were improper, and until questions were recently raised, had no reason whatsoever to believe that they might be improper," Democratic Party Chairman David Young wrote in . "Some five years has elapsed since the last of these contributions (was) received and disclosed, and the facts and circumstances may never be known."

The $24,086 payment to the elections board represented the total value of the seven in-kind contributions, Young said. The party was making the payment to show its good faith in abiding by elections laws, he said.

Political watchdog Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said he expects the Board of Elections will eventually hold a hearing on Easley's finances because so many flights that would have exceeded contribution limits were filtered through the Democratic Party.

"This is a way to game the system, to get around the law to benefit my campaign. 'I'm cheating. I'm stealing. I'm lying.' All three of those things are happening here," Hall said.

Six of the seven contributions the Democratic Party paid for Thursday were for flights, while the seventh was for $3,119 in Christmas ornaments.

The flights included two from McQueen Campbell, an Easley appointee to the North Carolina State University Board of Trustees who resigned amid questions over the university's hiring and promotion of Easley's wife, and one from Cameron McRae, who resigned from the state Board of Transportation amid questions about flights he provided to the former governor.

The other three flights were provided by Parker Overton, the founder of a chain of watersports and marine accessories stores; Dell Murphy, the son of pork baron Wendell Murphy; and Thomas Segrave, a Kinston pilot.

Easley's campaign also paid the Board of Elections $2,720 Thursday to make up for improper contributions during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Three of the contributions exceeded the $4,000 limit, and campaign officials couldn't determine the source of a fourth contribution, campaign treasurer Joseph Newsome said in .

In addition to Easley's travel, the grand jury also has examined vehicles car dealers provided to him and his family, his purchase of a waterfront lot in Carteret County at a below-market price, the sale of a Southport marina to a group that included some political contributors and N.C. State's hiring of his wife.