Local Politics

Perdue campaign fined $30,000 for unreported flights

Posted August 24, 2010 11:23 a.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2010 8:44 p.m. EDT

— The State Board of Elections voted Tuesday to fine Gov. Beverly Perdue's campaign $30,000 for unreported campaign flights during the 2004 and 2008 elections.

The two Republicans on the five-member elections board, Bill Peaslee and Charles Winfree, wanted to impose a $75,000 fine or hold a public hearing on the matter, but the Democratic majority defeated both efforts.

The board voted 4-1 for the $30,000 fine, with Peaslee casting the lone vote against it.

"We think a fine is a reasonable resolution," said Marc Farinella, a spokesman for Perdue's campaign committee. "We know we made errors. We want to take responsibility for those errors, and what was most important to us was the recognition that no one was trying to do anything intentionally."

Perdue said in a statement that her campaign would immediately pay the fine.

"For eight months now, I have said repeatedly my campaign had a flawed system for recording flights, and we should have done a better job," Perdue said. "It's clear there was never any intent by my campaign to conceal any flights or contributions, and the (elections) board formally recognized that fact.

"I look forward to putting this matter to rest," she concluded.

The elections board has investigated campaign flights by Perdue and other 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial candidates since late last year. In June, an investigative report found that most candidates didn't properly account for campaign flights, but Bartlett said at the time that there was no evidence that anyone tried to skirt campaign finance laws.

Over the past year, Perdue's campaign has filed amended campaign finance reports to reflect flights she took aboard donors' planes, saying they discovered the flights hadn't been reported previously while auditing finances after switching to a new software program.

The campaign reported 41 flights during the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. Some were treated as in-kind donations, and the campaign repaid other donors for flights because they had already given the maximum allowed to her campaign.

Last week, the board released an additional 10-page investigative report that showed how Perdue's campaign kept detailed notes about her travel aboard private planes and how it was funded.

John Wallace, the attorney for Perdue's campaign, told board members Tuesday that the campaign made mistakes, but he said there was nothing intentional about the omissions.

"I don't think this this board has before it in this report (or) by any statement by any witness any evidence that anything was doing intentionally to delay or obfuscate or avoid responsibilities," Wallace said. "What we have is people in the heat of a campaign acting imperfectly."

The elections board voted against fining the other gubernatorial candidates who improperly reported flights.

North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer called the election board's investigation and the $30,000 a "whitewash," saying the board "has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for the governor."

Fetzer went toe-to-toe with State Board of Elections Chairman Larry Leake during Tuesday's meeting, as he reiterated his call for Leake and Gary Bartlett, executive director of the elections board, to resign their positions. Fetzer has alleged that the two men interfered with the board's investigation of the campaign flights to protect Perdue.

"I think this board has some serious internal problems," he said. "I believe this investigation could have been handled much, much better."

Leake responded by saying Fetzer's attacks have been politically motivated.

"This is our meeting, not yours," Leake said. "This is a meeting of the State Board of Elections, not a Tom Fetzer campaign stop."

Fetzer and Farinella even went at each other after the elections board went into a closed-door session.

"Your argument is not with me. I'm just quoting from the report," Fetzer said.

"You're not quoting anything. You're just standing here paraphrasing all sorts of stuff," Farinella snapped back.

The probe has riled both Democrats and Republicans. In addition to Fetzer's charges of obstruction, Democrats maintained that lead investigator Kim Strach was biased because her husband worked for the state Republican Party.

"It has been politicized by both parties," said Bob Phillips, executive director of campaign watchdog group Common Cause North Carolina. "It probably would have been better to have seen everyone come together on this, but they did not. Clearly, people will read into it what they want to."

Last fall, the elections board ordered the campaign of former Gov. Mike Easley to pay $100,000 for not reporting dozens of campaign flights. Easley's campaign was supposed to appeared before the board Tuesday to address its tardy payment of the fine, but the matter was delayed until next month.