Local Politics

GOP chairman calls for investigation of state elections officials

Posted June 28, 2010 1:12 p.m. EDT
Updated June 28, 2010 6:51 p.m. EDT

— The chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party called Monday for the resignations of two State Board of Elections officials, saying they conspired with the campaign of Gov. Beverly Perdue to downplay campaign finance violations.

Tom Fetzer also asked that Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby investigate elections board Chairman Larry Leake and Executive Director Gary Bartlett to determine whether they obstructed justice.

"This is corruption at its finest," Fetzer said at a news conference of the elections board's investigation into flights Perdue took during the 2004 and 2008 campaigns that weren't reported in campaign finance reports until last year.

The elections board declined to comment on Fetzer's allegations. Willoughby couldn't be reached for comment.

Perdue's campaign has disclosed 41 such flights at various times since last August. The total value of the flights was estimated at $56,000.

Bartlett said there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing in the lack of reporting by Perdue and other gubernatorial campaigns. The full board is expected to address the investigation next month to determine how to handle the reporting violations and whether to turn any information over to prosecutors to pursue a criminal case.

Fetzer said the investigation itself should be reviewed by prosecutors, alleging that Leake and Bartlett worked with John Wallace, the attorney for Perdue's campaign, to limit the scope of the investigation.

Fetzer said Leake and Bartlett told Kim Strach, the board's top investigator, what witnesses to interview and when and prohibited her from speaking with Zach Ambrose, Perdue's campaign manager. Leake also sat in on some witness interviews and directed how they would proceed, according to Fetzer.

"It's apparent that Bartlett, Leake and Wallace acted together, often consulting with each other on several occasions, to derail the investigation and deter it and direct it away from issues they considered dangerous to Gov. Perdue," Fetzer said.

Wallace issued a statement Monday afternoon calling Fetzer's allegations "irresponsible and reckless."

Marc Farinella, a spokesman for Perdue's campaign committee, also fired back that Fetzer was campaign chairman for Bill Graham's gubernatorial campaign in 2008, which the elections board noted also failed to properly report flights.

"From Day 1, the Perdue Committee has taken full responsibility for its mistakes and omissions and has worked hard to disclose and rectify those problems," Farinella said in a statement. "Although other campaigns also had significant reporting problems, none of them (was) willing to conduct the type of voluntary self-audit that we undertook."

Perdue campaign officials previously said the unreported flights were found during an audit after switching to new financial software.

Fetzer noted that other reasons for the lack of reporting were provided to investigators, from not having a system in place to handle reporting air travel to staff turnover and the rapid pace of the campaign. He ridiculed such excuses, saying Wallace knows North Carolina campaign law better than anyone else in the state.

Also, he noted that the investigation did find that, Buzzy Stubbs, the former law partner of Perdue's late husband, had told Wallace and other campaign officials that he had racked up $28,498 in air travel expenses for Perdue.

State laws bar campaign contributions from businesses, and they cap the amount an individual can donate to a particular candidate at $4,000 per election.

According to the investigation, Stubbs had already contributed $4,000 to Perdue's campaign, and he said he was told that his travel payments could be shown as an in-kind contribution to the state Democratic Party. The state party later rejected the contribution, though, because it's illegal to contribute to a political party with the intent to benefit a specific candidate.

Perdue's campaign reimbursed Stubbs last year for the flights. Flights provided by other donors were classified as in-kind contributions on amended campaign finance reports.

Fetzer said the only reason the flights were reported in recent months was because of the investigation into former Gov. Mike Easley's campaign.

Last fall, the elections board ordered Easley's campaign to pay $100,000 for dozens of unreported flights during his 2000 and 2004 campaigns. They turned their findings over to a special prosecutor to determine if any criminal charges were warranted.

Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kennerly is reviewing the Easley case and said he expects to make a decision on whether to file criminal charges against the former governor sometime next month.

"If not for the ramifications of the Easley hearings, Gov. Perdue and her campaign would have never disclosed those flights," he said. "They just thought they were going to get away with it."

Farinella noted that the Perdue campaign committed to auditing their records in 2008 and began the audit in January 2009, long before Easley was under investigation for unreported campaign flights.