Donor indicted in probe of Perdue campaign flights

Posted February 8, 2011 2:47 p.m. EST
Updated February 8, 2011 5:55 p.m. EST

— A Wake County grand jury on Tuesday indicted a political contributor in connection with a state investigation into Gov. Beverly Perdue's campaign finances.

Robert Lee Caldwell of Morganton was charged with one count of felony obstruction of justice.

The indictment alleges that Caldwell obtained a campaign donation from a man named James Fleming and then reimbursed Fleming with money from an unidentified source. Caldwell then used Fleming's check to pay Profile Aviation to fly Perdue to a campaign stop, according to the indictment.

Caldwell told Perdue's campaign committee that the plane trip was an in-kind donation from Fleming, knowing that was false, the indictment states. The campaign then included that incorrect information in its campaign finance filings.

Perdue's office referred all questions to campaign spokesman Marc Farinella, who said in a statement that the campaign was in the dark about the illegal contribution.

"We do not condone any activity that violates campaign finance laws, and we believe strongly that North Carolinians are entitled to truthful and accurate reporting of campaign contributions," Farinella said. "We are disappointed by the activity described in the indictment, and we strongly urge all contributors to all campaigns to abide by the requirements of the law.”

Former Gov. Mike Easley appointed Caldwell to the Board of Trustees of Western Piedmont Community College in 2002 and again in 2006, and Perdue reappointed him last year.

College officials declined to comment.

The indictment marks the first criminal case in a state investigation into Perdue's campaign flights.

The State Board of Elections fined the governor's campaign $30,000 last August for not reporting dozens of campaign flights aboard donors' planes during the 2004 and 2008 elections until late 2009.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby reviewed the information from the elections board's investigation and last fall asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter further to help him determine whether any criminal charges were warranted.

Willoughby said Tuesday that nothing has been brought up in the investigation that implicates Perdue in any wrongdoing. The investigation is ongoing, he said.

"I would not be surprised to see more charges," Willoughby said.

Federal investigators also are looking into Perdue's campaign finances.

According to a recent campaign filing, Perdue has spent $140,000 since last July to pay for lawyers to represent her in the elections board case. She also recently retained high-profile defense attorneys Joe Cheshire and Wade Smith.