Berger names Pope to Golden LEAF

Posted June 14, 2011 3:57 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2011 10:14 p.m. EDT

Senate Leader Phil Berger has appointed major Republican donor Art Pope to the governing board of Golden LEAF, the Rocky Mount foundation that makes economic development grants with tobacco settlement money. It’s an organization Pope has long criticized.

Pope, a former state lawmaker and CEO of Variety Wholesalers Inc., is a key figure in state GOP politics. He’s one of four national directors of Americans for Prosperity, and his family foundation provides much of the funding for various conservative organizations like Civitas, John Locke and the NC Institute for Constitutional Law.

Pope said the senate leader approached him to suggest several boards he might serve on, including Golden LEAF.

“I personally have at times, as a legislator and a citizen, been critical of specific grants” and certain administrators, Pope said. “But just because you’re critical does not mean you cannot improve the board.”

Pope says he looks forward to serving on the board, saying his experience as a businessman and Pope Foundation chairman make him well-qualified for the seat. “I think I’ll be very effective in improving the performance of the board and its service to the state’s citizens.”

Sen. Berger said he approached Pope to ask him to serve. He said the appointment had nothing to do with Pope’s large political donations over the years, and he’s not worried about the appearance of pay-to-play politics.

“If he were unqualified, that’d be one thing,” Berger said, but he argued Pope’s background in business and non-profit leadership will serve the board well.

Berger doesn’t think Pope’s past antagonism toward Golden LEAF should disqualify him, either. “Who better to put on the board than someone who’s been asking hard questions about it for years?”

But campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina thinks otherwise.

“He [Pope] is the single biggest patron of the Republican legislature,” Hall said. “He and his family put in close to $300,000 in the 2010 election.”

“He’s getting a return on his investment now,” Hall said. “He’s not just a backroom dealer anymore.”

Hall likened it to Democrats’ longstanding tradition of appointing big donors and fundraisers to the state Board of Transportation.

“It’s the same as what we’ve criticized them for in the past,” Hall said. “There’s a big pool to draw from to serve on boards in this state. Why do they always have to go for the big players?”

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said today he’d noticed  many people associated with Pope were being appointed to various boards and commissions. But he said Pope’s appointment to the Golden LEAF board was particularly perplexing.

“He’s opposed it from the day it was formed,” Nesbitt protested.

“It’s probably the largest pot of money other than the state treasury that anyone could have their hands on, and obviously, that’s where he wanted to sit. He wanted to go where the money was. So he’s there,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt didn’t deny that Democrats used to hand out Transportation Board seats to their big donors, too. “But I don’t remember us putting people that hated a board on a board. I don’t remember ever doing that – but they sure have.”