RALEIGH – It all seems so familiar.
A high public official commits serious, grievous abuses of power. Some of the behavior appears to shade into criminality. When the misbehavior first comes to light, the elected official tries to deny, dodge, and weave. An attempted cover-up verges on being worse than the original offenses.
Then the attacks start – on the critics and investigators, not on the miscreant. It’s all a partisan hit job, the defenders say, or a lashing out by a bigoted power structure against a heroic champion of the underdog and dispossessed.
But it’s all wasted effort. The facts prevail. State and federal investigators – dogged, determined, and methodical – slowly but surely build a clear case. Eventually, it becomes necessary for the accused politician to give up a cherished public office, find a good attorney, and start shopping for a plea agreement.
Obviously, I’m drawing a parallel between the cases of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, now serving time in a federal penitentiary for her role in a campaign-finance scandal and cover-up, and Frank Ballance, the former congressman and state senator who was indicted Thursday (along with his son Garey, a district court judge) on charges related to the taxpayer-funded John Hyman Foundation.
The federal charges against Ballance include mail fraud and money laundering. The indictment cites evidence to the effect that while a state senator, Ballance helped shepherd state funds to the Hyman Foundation and then routed at least $100,000 to himself, his family, and his church. Worse, apparently, was what Ballance did after revelations about the Hyman Foundation’s questionable programming and failure to comply with basic state and federal laws, including the tax code. The indictment states that Ballance was involved in forging a signature on 10 official disbursements requests to the state and a conflict-of-interest form, as well as in financial transactions to cover up the fraud.
Joe Cheshire, the famed Raleigh defense attorney who is representing Ballance, says that he expects there to be a plea agreement, not a trial. Perhaps that will help lighten the federal sentence, which could include a large fine and many years in prison. Again, the parallel to the Phipps case is eerie.
A personal note is required here. My Carolina Journal colleagues and I were only tangentially involved in reporting and writing about the Phipps affair. But the Ballance case is very different. As this archive of stories documents, we began our investigation of the Hyman Foundation in April 2003. Many, though not all, of the initial media inquiries and subsequent discoveries about the organization’s questionable finances were the work of CJ’s own Don Carrington, under the direction of editor Richard Wagner. Both deserve congratulations for their fine and careful work on the story.
But there’s nothing to celebrate here. That’s the final parallel I see between the two cases. Phipps and Ballance both performed abominably and deserved what they got or will likely get. That justice prevailed does not obscure the real suffering that both must endure, and the pain they have brought on their family, friends, and political supporters. Nor will the damage to our political discourse be quickly repaired. Their false charges of sexism and racism, respectively, were unwarranted and destructive. To try to hide misbehavior behind a shield of self-righteousness serves only to obstruct the cause of equality and dishonor the memory of those who have truly fought, and defeated, bigotry and oppression — including, in what seems like a past life, Ballance himself.
There is justice here, yes, but also sadness.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.