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Top NC lawmaker resigns, pleads guilty to federal charges

Posted August 20, 2020 1:35 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2020 2:12 p.m. EDT

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett

— State Rep. David Lewis pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges regarding spending campaign money on his struggling family farm.

The plea comes almost a week after Lewis, R-Harnett, resigned his House seat and reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Lewis pleaded guilty to making a false statement to a bank and failing to file a tax return. In return for Lewis' guilty plea, prosecutors will recommend a judge sentence him to no more than six months in prison. It's possible he won't serve time at all, other than probation.

Court documents state that his campaign wrote checks totaling $65,000 to an entity called NC GOP Inc.

This was made to look like the North Carolina Republican Party, and the payments were logged as legal transfers to the state party, a bill of information filed in the case states. It was actually a private account Lewis opened in 2018.

Lewis then moved most of that money over to his farm, the filing states. He later donated $65,000, from his personal account, to the state party, the filing states.

A "factual basis" document filed on Aug. 20 says Lewis also transferred $300,000 from his campaign account to Lewis Farms over the first half of 2018, without disclosing it to the State Board of Elections as required by state law. The lawmaker later repaid his campaign account in full, the filing states.

A spokesman for the State Board of Elections said he couldn't comment on the allegation.

In a statement, Lewis said the plea deal "signifies my commitment to put an unfortunate chapter behind me."

"These are my mistakes, and my mistakes alone. I am very sorry for these mistakes, and I apologize," he said in the statement. "I was raised on a farm, and I've been a farmer all my life. But farming has been tough for me for the past six years in a row, and the financial stress I've been under has been tremendous. However, that is the reality facing many family farms, and it does not excuse my mistakes."

Lewis chaired the House Rules committee and does a lot of the deal making that decides what bills pass the General Assembly in Raleigh. Rumors have dogged him for some time, and he announced in July that he wouldn't run for re-election, even though he'd already filed to do so this year.

In early August, House Speaker Tim Moore appointed up-and-coming Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, to co-chair House Rules for the coming September legislative session.

The charges don't necessarily tie into the federal government's prosecution of Greg Lindberg, the state's largest political donor, but tendrils from that case likely brought federal interest in Lewis' finances. In 2018, the lawmaker took a $500,000 loan from a central figure in that case: Lindberg's political fixer, John Gray.

Lindberg, Gray and then-Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes were indicted in that case last year, and a federal jury found Lindberg and Gray guilty on bribery charges in March. Hayes pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators in the case.

All three men were sentenced Aug. 19. The same U.S. Attorney's Office, for the Western of District of North Carolina that handled that case handled Lewis' plea agreement, along with the U.S. Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section.

In addition to chairing House Rules, Lewis was heavily involved in writing the state's election laws and drawing the legislative and congressional maps that have been repeatedly struck down by the courts in response to gerrymandering lawsuits filed by Democrats and left-leaning groups.

In an Aug. 20 statement, the House Democratic Caucus called him the "architect of modern Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression in North Carolina" and noted his close ties to Moore, R-Cleveland.

They also noted that this is the second Republican House Rules chairman to be guilty on federal charges. Stephen LaRoque was convicted in 2015 of pilfering money from a federally funded nonprofit meant to help rural businesses. House Democrats said Lewis' crimes were "indicative of a culture of corruption."

“North Carolinians cannot trust Speaker Tim Moore and House Republicans to legislate in the people’s best interest when key members of his team put their own personal interests first and foremost," Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said in a statement.

Moore said in his own statement that he was "deeply disappointed by these circumstances and regret the poor reflection they have on Rep. Lewis' public service."

"I have been a friend and colleague of David's since college, and while people make mistakes, they must be held accountable, particularly as public servants," Moore said. "I wish the Lewis family well moving forward from this."

Lewis hired an attorney in May with experience in federal grand jury work, according to his last quarterly campaign finance report. That attorney said Thursday that he doesn't represent Lewis. He may be advising campaign staff.

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