Last fall, the board ruled that a campaign ad by the Republican Governors Association for Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine violated election rules and fined the group nearly $200,000.
The ad was also pulled off the air, but the election board allowed another ad that was critical of Ballantine to stay on the air.
"Obviously, there's been a tremendous injustice to Patrick Ballantine, our Republican gubernatorial nominee," said Ferrel Blount of the North Carolina GOP. "I looked at the ads myself. I couldn't tell a difference. To rule that the Republican ad violated the law and the Democratic ad did not -- obviously, there's some real inconsistency."
"I thought the RGA did not intentionally violate North Carolina campaign finance law," Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison said, because it had gotten legal advice that the ad was an "issues ad" that could be paid for with money funds and not be subject to tougher restrictions.
He points to the fact that the state board unanimously determined the RGA was a political committee. In his ruling, Morrison said the RGA did not meet the qualifications of a political committee that would have been subject to stricter campaign finance rules.
When it came to an ad produced by a group of former Democratic governors, however, the state board's three Democrats out-voted the two Republicans to say that the group of Democrats was not a political committee.
Democrats said they still believe the RGA deserved the $200,000 fine it got.
"It broke the law," said Caroline Valand, of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "It used corporate money -- that's wrong."
Republicans feel politics have been at play all along. Morrison, a registered Democrat, however, said he tried to be impartial.
"I've tried to look at this like a judge and be impartial," Morrison said. "I try to call them like I see it."
Morrison's ruling is a recommendation to the board, which would make a final decision after reviewing his documents. The board's ruling then could be appealed to Wake County Superior Court.
The Republican Governors Association, the official political arm of GOP governors, is "vindicated by the judge's decision," executive director Mike Pieper said. "We urge the State Board of Elections to act promptly in adhering to the court's recommendation and dismiss this case."
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