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Former Perdue staffer pleads guilty to obstruction

Posted September 21, 2012 9:58 a.m. EDT
Updated September 21, 2012 3:36 p.m. EDT

— A former aide to Gov. Beverly Perdue pleaded guilty Friday to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge in connection with secret salary payments she received while working on the Democrat's 2008 campaign.

Julia Leigh Sitton was sentenced to 45 days in jail, which was suspended to 12 months on unsupervised probation. Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens also ordered her to pay a $5,000 fine and barred her from working for or raising money for political campaigns or groups while on probation.

As part of a plea agreement, a campaign finance violation was dismissed.

"Everyone seems to think the rules don't mean anything and the truth doesn't mean anything," Stephens said. "Although this is sheer political foolishness, it still rises to the level of criminal conduct."

Sitton, a Morganton lawyer who resigned last year as director of the governor's Western Office, didn't speak during the court hearing and declined to comment afterward.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Perdue fundraising chairman Peter Reichard persuaded a Burke County businessman to pay for Sitton's work as a campaign fundraiser under the guise of her working as a consultant for Reichard's firm, Tryon Capital Ventures.

Sitton was paid $30,000 for working on the campaign from August 2007 to November 2008, Willoughby said.

"No consulting was provided. The defendant worked full time for the campaign," he said. "These (payments) were not disclosed in campaign reports."

Reichard, of Greensboro, pleaded guilty in December to funneling the secret payments to Sitton through Tryon Capital Ventures.

Defense attorney Joe Zeszotarski said Sitton wants to put the episode behind her. He said she is unemployed and struggling financially.

"This is a matter that has caused her great embarrassment, great concern," Zeszotarski said.

The charges against Sitton and Reichard resulted from a State Board of Elections investigation into flights Perdue took aboard donor's planes during her 2004 and 2008 campaigns that weren't reported properly. The elections board fined the campaign $30,000 two years ago.

Perdue has acknowledged that her campaign made mistakes reporting flights, but has maintained that there was no criminal intent.

Willoughby said there was no evidence that the governor was aware of the activities of Sitton and Reichard.

Longtime Perdue friend Trawick "Buzzy" Stubbs still faces charges that he provided his private plane to the campaign for several flights that weren't properly reported.

Willoughby said campaign finance violations have historically been treated lightly, as "boys being boys" offenses.

"These are serious problems," he said. "They're like termites in your house. You don't see the damage until it's already over. The public loses confidence in the process."