Cooper armed with bicoastal campaign donations
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper raised $605,649 — 7% of his 2019 campaign funds — from residents of New York and California, based on a Carolina Journal analysis of his campaign finance reports. But details about Cooper’s fundraising trips to those states are hard to come by.
Two trips to New York are at the heart of a lawsuit by Charlotte television station WBTV, filed Jan. 3 in Wake County. WBTV thinks Cooper is withholding public records showing how he traveled.
Incomplete or inaccurate reporting of campaign-related air travel got North Carolina’s past two Democratic governors in legal trouble. Mike Easley’s campaign committee was fined $100,000 and he later took a felony plea in state court for concealing a free flight that should have been paid by his campaign. Easley’s successor Bev Perdue’s campaign was fined $30,000 for failing to report flights. Several of her associates faced legal sanctions for their roles in campaign activities.
In December, Cooper campaign spokesman Morgan Jackson declined to tell WRAL of Raleigh whether Cooper attended any fundraising events when he was in San Francisco on Dec. 2 and Dec. 3 for a Democratic Governors Association annual meeting. Jackson did not return a phone call from CJ seeking information on travel to other states for fundraising trips.
Candidates receive donations of all amounts. And while campaign committees must collect personal information on every donor who gives as little as $1, those who give $50 or less don’t have to be identified on public disclosure reports. In this year’s race for governor, small-level donations to Cooper dwarf the totals reported by his Republican challengers, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Rep. Holly Grange of New Hanover County.
Among the out-of-state contributors, Cooper received 503 contributions totaling $420,484 from New Yorkers. He received 417 contributions amounting to $185,165 from Californians. Some individuals gave several times, and each contribution is reported as a separate event.
Cooper’s notable New York donors include billionaire George Soros, his son Alexander Soros, and fashion designer Ralph Lauren. Each made the maximum $5,400 contribution for the primary election. Individuals may contribute another $5,400 for the general election after the March 3 primary.
Forest received no contributions from New York or California. Grange, R-New Hanover, received three contributions totaling $5,200 from New York and none from California. Ernest Reeves of Greenville is challenging Cooper in the Democratic primary. He reported raising and spending $1,641, all his own money.
Campaign reports on the N.C. State Board of Elections’ website show Cooper received 32,996 contributions totaling $8,770,322 and had $8,281,562 on hand at the end of 2019. Forest received 5,674 total contributions totaling $2,743,594 and had $932,687 on hand. Grange received 263 total contributions totaling $159,539 and had $27,329 cash on hand.
The candidates also will benefit from spending by outside groups not affiliated with the campaigns. WRAL recently reported Forest chairs a group named the Republican Council of State Committee that has more than $1 million on hand. He also has a political action committee, Truth & Prosperity, with $1.7 million.
WRAL reported the N.C. Democratic Leadership Committee plans to spend on Cooper’s behalf. According to WRAL, eight donors to that committee each gave more than $100,000. One is Dr. Karla Jurvetson, a California physician. Another is Clay Kenan Kirk, a retiree from New York.
Cooper’s campaign donations included 7,830 contributions of $50 or less in 2019. N.C. campaign finance laws require campaign treasurers to collect the name, address, occupation, and employer of all contributors. But they aren’t required to disclose that information for individual donors who’ve given no more than $50 during an election. Those low-dollar donations are labeled “Aggregated Contributions from Individuals,” and only the date, form of payment, and amount of each contribution are reported. The address isn’t disclosed, so the public cannot tell which state those small contributions are from.
Forest’s 2019 reports listed 1,187 contributions of $50 or less totaling $34,568; Grange reported 38, totaling $1,237.
Even though the governor’s office and his campaign officials share little information about his travel to fundraising events in New York and California, his campaign reports offer some insight.
Cooper’s latest report shows a $1,140 payment Oct. 25 to the Los Angeles Lakers for event tickets, suggesting Cooper or campaign staff attended a basketball game. The report also showed an in-kind catering donation Oct. 29 from Robert Anderson, listed as a filmmaker from San Francisco, for $2,200. In-kind catering contributions typically are listed for an event at the donor’s house featuring the candidate. Anderson also provided a second donation by credit card Nov. 18 of $3,200.
Cooper’s report shows $993 spent Dec. 17 for lodging in Los Angeles and the same day $312 for lodging in New York City. The campaign also paid for lodging in New York City in July, October, and November.
In October, WBTV ‘s chief investigative reporter Nick Ochsner reported Cooper and the Highway Patrol refused to provide answers or all documents relating to the governor’s travel to New York City for fundraisers. WBTV maintains the governor’s travel records on state business are public records, and that air travel spending associated with campaign business must be reported on campaign finance reports, eventually becoming public records.
The Highway Patrol provides the governor’s Executive Protection Detail, driving him to meetings, to events, and to airports for air travel. WBTV wants to know how Cooper traveled to New York City for fundraisers Jan. 31 and June 20 of 2019. WBTV’s reporting suggested records or documents should exist describing how Cooper traveled to New York.
Cooper’s 2019 midyear campaign finance report included no travel expenses associated with those days. If Cooper traveled on private aircraft, the value of the trip must be reported as a campaign contribution, and the contributor would have to be listed. Corporations and business entities are prohibited from directly or indirectly making campaign contributions.
Unreported travel expenses have caused legal troubles for the past two Democratic governors. In 2009, the State Board of Elections fined former Easley’s campaign committee $100,000 for free flights the governor took and didn’t report. The next year, Easley became the first N.C. governor convicted of a felony for actions connected to his official duties when he filed a guilty plea in state court for campaign finance violations related to the flights.
Travel-related campaign finance problems also dogged Perdue. In 2010, the elections board fined Perdue’s committee $30,000 for unreported campaign flights and several of her campaign officials and associates faced legal problems related to the flights.
WBTV continued its pursuit of travel records by filing a complaint in January with Wake County Superior Court. The complaint names Cooper, Public Safety Department Secretary Erik Hooks, and Highway Patrol Commander Glenn McNeill as defendants. The patrol is under the Public Safety Department. WBTV is asking the court for an order compelling defendants to appear and provide the travel records for inspection and copying.
Lawyers for Cooper and the other defendants responded to the complaint Feb. 10. Through his lawyers, Hooks submitted a motion to dismiss the complaint, saying he isn’t the relevant records custodian and there were no more public records concerning the governor’s travel. McNeill also submitted a motion to dismiss claiming no more public records related to the governor’s travel exist. Cooper also submitted a motion to dismiss the complaint stating he was not the custodian of the records WBTV sought.