News: CJ Exclusives

State GOP files campaign ethics complaint against governor

GOP says Cooper received illegal contributions from trial-lawyers' lobbying group while General Assembly was in session

N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes  (CJ file photo)
N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes (CJ file photo)

What if the governor broke campaign finance laws but no state election board was there to rule?

Maybe he would stall an investigation by not appointing members to the board.

North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes offered that scenario Wednesday in a news conference.

Hayes accused Gov. Roy Cooper of repeating past Democratic governors’ campaign finance irregularities by receiving $50,000 in possibly illegal campaign contributions from the political action committee of North Carolina Advocates for Justice. That group is a registered lobbying organization of 3,500 legal professionals.

Hayes filed a campaign finance and ethics complaint late Wednesday and asked the North Carolina Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to investigate. But that board is nonexistent because Cooper refuses to appoint its members. He claims the law that created the new board unconstitutionally violates the separation of powers, and he is fighting it in court.

“Might we think that the governor is dragging his feet on that board of elections so there is no official body to look at these kinds of infractions, and breaking of the rules?” Hayes said.

The Advocates for Justice said nothing wrong happened at the meeting.

“We would assert that there were absolutely no illegalities that occurred,” said Kim Crouch, NCAJ executive director.

“This was not an NCAJ or an NCAJ PAC event. It was a Cooper campaign event,” Crouch said. “The Cooper campaign paid for and organized the event, and any money raised came from individual members.”

Requests for comment weren’t answered by Cooper’s office.

“This office has continued, and will continue to conduct campaign finance- and ethics-related investigations,” elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon said.

“Assessing civil penalties requires a vote of the board, as does the subpoena process. A criminal referral from campaign finance investigations would also require a board vote,” Gannon said. “But the administrative review process does not require a sitting board.”

Hayes said Cooper’s official campaign committee hosted the June 18 fundraiser at Sea Trail Convention Center in Sunset Beach in conjunction with the lobbying organization’s annual convention.

That appears to violate state laws prohibiting a Council of State member from soliciting campaign donations, and lobbyists or PACs from giving them while the General Assembly is in session. Cooper is a member of the Council of State, and the General Assembly was in session until June 30.

“There was pending legislation in the legislature, which would very much affect the PAC that sponsored this reception at Sunset Beach, so that makes it even more disappointing,” Hayes said.

Senate Bill 470 placing requirements on plaintiffs in personal injury cases dealing with asbestos-related diseases and bankruptcy trust claims was one bill of significant interest to the lawyer PAC that was still before the legislature, Hayes said.

House Bill 467 capping property owners’ damages in public nuisance suits brought against large hog farm operations was vetoed by Cooper after NCAJ lobbied publicly against the bill. A month later Cooper received the large donations from NCAJ members at his fundraiser. The legislature voted to override the veto.

Hayes and Dallas Woodhouse, Republican Party executive director, said in addition to questions surrounding the fundraising, Cooper campaign expense reports show no payment for room rental at the resort. Nor are there in-kind contributions listed for stuffing envelopes or printing and publishing promotional materials for the event. That could signal illegal contributions, they said.

“Our opponents, the Democrats, have a lengthy history particularly through the previous administrations of Easley, Perdue, and now Gov. Cooper, of not being transparent or following the rule, and letter of the law,” Hayes said. “Apparently Gov. Cooper and the Democrats do not go by the same rules we do.”

Former Gov. Mike Easley in 2010 became the state’s first governor convicted of a felony offense connected to his conduct in office. He took a plea agreement for campaign finance violations. Three campaign officials for Easley’s successor Bev Perdue were convicted of campaign finance violations, and two others entered guilty pleas.

“It’s important that we follow the law,” Hayes said. “We want the public to trust in us, in the system, and the legislature, and when you don’t follow the law serious questions are raised.”