RALEIGH – In a state capital where scandal, investigation, and partisan acrimony have become all-too-common elements of the political scene, the news that a federal grand jury had been hearing testimony about the finances and travel expenditures of the governor’s campaign came as no shock.
The shock came when North Carolina politicos, expecting to hear the name Mike Easley attached to the story, realized that the governor in question was Beverly Perdue.
That Perdue’s 2008 campaign had made extensive use of donated air travel, in ways that appeared to contravene state law governing campaign reporting and contribution limits, has already been widely reported. Carolina Journal has been in the thick of it, as our Exclusive series can attest.
But few expected the office of U.S. Attorney George Holding, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration, to begin a federal investigation of the Perdue campaign. He’s still on the job, nearly two years after the election of President Obama, because of ongoing investigations of two other prominent Democratic politicians, Easley and former Sen. John Edwards.
Why would he initiate yet another high-profile corruption probe?
It’s pure partisan politics, suggested state Democratic Party executive director Andrew Whalen when the Raleigh News & Observer broke the story of the federal Perdue investigation. “Eleven days before a crucial election affecting the direction of our nation and state, we have learned that the Republican U.S. Attorney has apparently chosen to serve subpoenas and open yet another investigation into a Democratic elected official,” Whalen told the paper. “The timing of these events would lead any reasonable person to have serious questions about this new investigation.”
I don’t doubt that many Democratic leaders had a similar reaction to the news. But I would respectfully suggest that they look more closely at the facts here. They don’t point to a GOP “October Surprise.”
While no one can say for certain what’s going on in the famously tight-lipped FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, consider the fact that they were already investigating the 2004 Easley campaign for using private aircraft in ways that were either not reported or allegedly in violation of contribution limits. As Carolina Journal has previously reported, there appear to be practices and individuals common to the two campaign’s use of air travel.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the role of Raleigh attorney John Wallace. When CJ broke the story of Easley’s use of unreported flights two years ago, Wallace was the lawyer representing the Easley campaign and talked to reporters about the allegations. At the same time, the fall of 2008, he did work for both the Perdue campaign and the Democratic Party, and was even involved in a dispute about unpaid flights for the Perdue campaign as an attorney for the state party.
The most likely explanation for federal interest in the Perdue flights, it seems to me, is as a natural extension of the preexisting investigation of the Easley flights.
But what about the timing? Even if the facts and logic of the Easley probe led federal authorities to start asking questions of Perdue campaign donors, why have the news leak out just before the legislative elections unless the intent was to affect the outcome?
Why indeed? Look closely at the N&O story. Reporter Michael Biesecker doesn’t spell out exactly who leaked the story of the Perdue investigation, but he does discuss the role of Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a Democrat who had previously announced a state investigation of the Perdue flights. “News of the federal investigation broke after Willoughby said potential witnesses contacted in his investigation had received orders to appear before the federal grand jury,” Biesecker writes.
In other words, public disclosure of a federal interest in Perdue’s campaign flights likely came either from the campaign donors and operatives being interviewed or from Willoughby’s office. Hard to find a Republican partisan in either group.
Willoughby is understandably upset that the federal probe is affecting his own investigation. But if federal interest in the Perdue flights arose from the prior federal investigation of the Easley flights, as I suspect, then it may well have proven impossible to complete the latter without exploring the former.
Many unknowns remain. Raleigh is full of speculation, but until indictments come – or don’t come – that’s what it will remain.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.