News: CJ Exclusives

Unnamed Source Paid for Perdue Campaign Flight

DA Willoughby says other people may be charged

When a Wake County grand jury indicted Robert Lee Caldwell of Morganton Feb. 8 for obstruction of justice for his involvement in a 2007 campaign flight for Gov. Bev Perdue, it mentioned that “cash from an unnamed source” was used to pay for the flight.

According to the indictment, Caldwell solicited a check from Morganton barber James D. Fleming to pay for the flight, and then reimbursed him with cash from the “unnamed source.” Fleming’s check was used to hide the actual source of the funds, the indictment states.

The unnamed source, which the indictment makes clear was someone other than Caldwell, has not been identified and Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby told Carolina Journal his investigation of Perdue’s numerous unreported flights is ongoing and other people may be charged.

Records from the Perdue campaign obtained by the State Board of Elections show that Morganton businessman Charles M. “Mike” Fulenwider and his wife Joella were aboard the airplane with Perdue and her husband Bob Eaves on the Dec. 8, 2007, flight. Also aboard was Raleigh attorney Robert Zaytoun, co-chairman of Perdue’s 2008 campaign for governor.

According to the grand jury indictment of Caldwell, he “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did, in secret and with malice, and with deceit and intent to defraud, obstruct public justice by engaging in a pattern of behavior that deceived the treasurer of the Bev Perdue Committee,” causing the treasurer to file false campaign reports and obstructing public access to correct information about the Perdue campaign committee.

Reached at his Charlotte office Wednesday, Caldwell’s attorney, Henderson Hill, declined to comment.

Marc Farinella, spokesman for the Perdue campaign, told CJ the campaign became concerned about the flight involving Caldwell after seeing it noted in a 2010 elections board investigative report. “We did make inquiries to get to the bottom of the information presented in the State Board of Elections report,” Farinella said. “The people we sought to talk with were not cooperative, and it soon became clear the DA was investigating the matter. We stopped our efforts because we didn’t want to interfere in an investigation,” he added.

Fulenwider chartered the Beechcraft King Air operated by Profile Aviation. The flight originated in Hickory, about 20 miles from the Fulenwider home in Morganton. The aircraft stopped in Chapel Hill, presumably to pick up Perdue, her husband, and Zaytoun. Perdue has homes in New Bern and Chapel Hill. The purpose of the flight was for Perdue to travel to Manteo for a political event involving former state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare.

Check solicited

According to the grand jury indictment, and information previously reported in CJ, Caldwell solicited a check from Fleming for $3,048.50 to pay for the airplane. (See “Why Didn’t Perdue Use Cheaper State Plane?” Oct. 2010 CJ.) State elections records show it was the only campaign contribution Fleming had given to a political committee for at least 20 years. The indictment stated that Fleming’s check was made out to Profile Aviation. Caldwell then reimbursed Fleming in cash provided by someone else, hiding the true source of funds used to pay for Perdue’s campaign-related transportation.

The Perdue campaign reported the flight as an in-kind contribution from Fleming. An in-kind contribution is a way to make a non-cash donation to a political campaign, but contribution limits still apply. The campaign treasurer properly recorded the value of the in-kind contribution as both a receipt and then a corresponding expenditure. Making a contribution in the name of another or making contributions above the legal limit are violations of North Carolina’s election laws.

The Perdue campaign also reported an in-kind contribution of $1,194 from Caldwell’s wife, Ola, on the same day. Records indicate her contribution was associated with the same flight.

No calls returned

Neither Fulenwider nor Zaytoun returned multiple calls from CJ seeking comment on the Caldwell indictment. In a September phone interview with CJ, Fulenwider confirmed that he arranged the flight, but said that since he already had given the maximum contribution to the Perdue campaign, he couldn’t donate any more. He denied paying for the flight in someone else’s name.

At the time of the flight, Mike Fulenwider, Joella Fulenwider, Caldwell, Zaytoun, and Zaytoun’s wife Lucetta each had given the maximum $4,000 to the Perdue campaign. After the 2008 May primary, state law allowed them to make another $4,000 donation to Perdue and each did.

Caldwell is a former state magistrate and a former chairman of the Board of Trustees of Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton. Gov. Mike Easley first appointed Caldwell to that board in 2002 and then again in 2006. He served as chairman from October 2008 to September 2010. Perdue reappointed Caldwell in 2010. He resigned from the board the day after he was indicted.

Fulenwider and flights

Fulenwider is the CEO of Fulenwider Enterprises, Inc., a company that operates several restaurants. He, his wife, and children gave a total of $24,000 to the Perdue 2008 campaign. Previous CJ reports show he also is associated with questionable or unreported flights worth almost $10,000. Perdue appointed him to the North Carolina Economic Development Board in 2009.

Zaytoun, served as Wake County Assistant District Attorney for four years beginning in 1978. He began his private practice in 1982 and specializes in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. He was co-chairman of Perdue’s 2008 campaign for governor. He also is vice-chairman of the North Carolina Health and Wellness Trust Fund Commission, appointed by Easley in 2000. The commission was set up to distribute tobacco settlement funds for medical-related grants in North Carolina. Perdue was chairman of that commission from 2000-08.

Farinella, a political consultant who lives in Florida, serves as the primary spokesman for the Perdue campaign even though he was not involved with the governor’s 2008 election efforts. He arrived in North Carolina in July 2008 to serve as the state director of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Perdue’s campaign finance reports indicate that Farinella started consulting for Perdue’s campaign in March 2010. He told CJ that the Perdue campaign did not welcome actions from contributors that were similar to those alleged in Caldwell’s indictment.

“There should not be any place for this in any campaign for any candidate, in any party,” he said.

The story so far

After CJ and The News & Observer reported on Easley’s unreported use of private aircraft for his political campaigns, Perdue’s campaign committee quietly began revising her 2004 and 2008 campaign finance reports in 2009. Her campaign eventually disclosed and paid for 42 unreported flights valued at $56,000. Perdue and others associated with her campaign claimed the unreported flights were not intentional.

Then-state Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer didn’t buy that explanation. He claimed the unreported flights were a deliberate attempt to violate campaign finance reporting laws. In October 2009, he called on the State Board of Elections to launch an investigation. After a lengthy investigation by board staff, the board discussed the staff report at an August 2010 meeting. The board’s three-member Democratic majority rejected a proposal from a Republican member to convene public hearings on Perdue’s flying activities, so it never questioned dozens of aircraft providers about their role in the free flights.

Perdue fined

The board fined the Perdue campaign $30,000 and found “no intent of wrongdoing.” Immediately after the board hearing, Willoughby said he was going to review the case.

In September, Willoughby acknowledged publicly that he asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into Perdue’s unreported flights because he thought the elections board might not have addressed the issues fully.

In October, Perdue acknowledged that federal authorities also were investigating her campaign. In February, Perdue said she had hired high-profile criminal defense attorneys Joe Cheshire and Wade Smith for legal advice related to the state and federal investigations of her campaigns.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.