Local Politics

Perdue donor pleads guilty to illegal campaign contributions

Posted May 4, 2010 3:24 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2010 7:13 p.m. EDT

— A Wilmington businessman pleaded guilty Tuesday to making $176,000 in illegal contributions to the campaigns of Gov. Beverly Perdue and other Democrats.

Rusty Carter pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of making illegal contributions through Atlantic Corp., a packaging company that he owns. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, which was suspended to two years on probation, and was fined $5,000. He also is barred from contributing to political campaigns for two years.

Carter admitted that he gave his employees bonuses, and they used a portion of the money to donate to campaigns between 2004 and last December. Prosecutors said $64,000 was given to Perdue's campaign, while Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight received $84,000 and Sen. Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, got $28,000.

State law prohibits one person making a campaign contribution under someone else's name. It also bars corporations from making donations to candidates.

Defense attorney David Long said Carter didn't know the contributions were illegal until Bob Hall, executive director of campaign watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, and State Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer recently complained about Carter's actions to the State Board of Elections.

"He knew you could not make corporate contributions ... (but) he thought this was the way it was done," Long said. "Today, he realizes what he did was inappropriate."

Long said Carter also made $25,000 to $30,000 in illegal donations to the campaign of former Gov. Mike Easley and other candidates. Those cases weren't prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired on the charges, he said.

Political watchdog Joe Sinsheimer said he feels Carter got off easy, but added, "Anytime someone pleads guilty, it's a sign the system does work."

Assistant New Hanover County District Attorney Tom Old said the law Carter violated is a misdemeanor offense, so the penalty was appropriate.

"A felony has a whole lot more bearing on, I think, people's conduct, particularly sophisticated people of wealth," Old said.

He said he doesn't believe any of the campaigns were aware the funds given to them were raised illegally.

Last month, Perdue's campaign surrendered $48,000 in donations from 12 Atlantic Corp. employees to her 2008 gubernatorial campaign to the elections board. Campaign treasurer Oscar Harris said at the time that the donations were discovered during an ongoing audit of campaign finances, and officials decided to give up the money even though they weren't sure they were illegal.

Marc Farinella, a spokesman for Perdue's campaign, said Tuesday that the campaign would send the remaining $16,000 to elections officials on Wednesday.

Shortly after Carter pleaded guilty, Basnight sent a check for $84,000 to the elections board to divest his campaign of the illegal donations.

"My campaign has always fully complied with our elections laws, and it has always been my expectation (and hopefully, the expectation of every candidate for office) that anyone who contributes to my campaign does so transparently, legally, and in good faith," Basnight wrote in a letter to Gary Bartlett, the executive director of the elections board.