Tensions build between elections board, campaign investigator
Posted July 13, 2010 5:24 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2010 9:34 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — As tensions grow over the State Board of Elections and its investigations, WRAL News has learned more about conflict-of-interest allegations and potential staff changes within the agency.
Senate Bill 1202, which passed on the final day of the legislative session last Saturday, allocates $100,000 to the elections board for a new campaign finance attorney. The budget also includes two other new investigative positions at the board.
Under certain scenarios, Kim Strach, the deputy director of campaign finance for the elections board, could be shifted off future investigations of politicians. Strach has led investigations at the board for 10 years, including cases that eventually sent former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and ex-House Speaker Jim Black to prison on corruption charges.
Sources told WRAL News that tensions have flared recently between Strach and Gary Bartlett, the executive director of the elections board. Bartlett and board Chairman Larry Leake made significant edits to Strach’s recent investigative report into campaign flights taken by 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial candidates, including Gov. Beverly Perdue.
For instance, Strach’s concern that the Perdue campaign might have known that flights were not properly reported was deleted from the final report. Also, a section that noted that the campaign of former Democratic candidate Richard Moore reached out to the board for guidance on flight reporting was edited out.
Critics, including North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer, said they believe Bartlett and the Democrat-controlled board worked to ensure Perdue, a Democrat, didn't look bad.
Sources also told WRAL News that Perdue campaign attorney John Wallace raised conflict-of-interest questions about Strach’s handling of the flights investigation because her husband, Phil Strach, was legal counsel for the state Republican Party.
The GOP filed the original complaint against Perdue with the board. There’s no indication that the questions of Kim Strach's marriage had ever been raised during prior cases.
“I don’t think its appropriate to comment at this time,” Kim Strach said Tuesday.
Andrew Whalen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, issued a statement late Tuesday, saying that party officials raising concerns about Kim Strach's potential conflict in the campaign flight investigation. She should have stepped aside and let someone else handle the probe, Whalen said.
"In our view, Ms. Strach should have recognized her conflict and recused herself, and the inquiry should have been handled by someone who was not compromised by a conflict of interest," he said in the statement. "At minimum, she had an obligation to include our raising of her conflict in the timeline or the report, but she did not."
Bartlett confirmed the new staff positions in the budget and said conversations have been held about Strach concentrating on campaign finance audits and compliance issues, which have fallen behind in recent years because of investigations.
An attorney and the new staffers could potentially take over investigations, Bartlett said, but any decisions must be handled by the board. He also noted the board has repeatedly had to turn to the state Attorney General’s Office for legal advice during past investigations because Strach is not an attorney.
As for any internal tensions at the elections board, Bartlett said he always tries to shift politics to the appointed board members.